North Charleston has a love/hate relationship with freight trains, which create noise and snarl traffic, while taking trucks off the road and supporting job-creating industries along the waterfront.
As plans to build a massive rail yard on the former Navy base move into the federal review process, residents and business owners in areas that would see direct impacts are typically quick to say they support the new port and rail yard if it will mean more jobs.
But they do have concerns.
At Ott Distributors on Aragon Avenue, which sells heating and air conditioning equipment to contractors, company President Chip Hester is worried about the impact on customers if 2-mile-long trains carrying shipping containers block the road to his business several times a day.
The plan submitted for federal review by Palmetto Railways, a division of the S.C. Department of Commerce, calls for some trains to use a new rail line that would come off Spruill Avenue and arc across Aragon Avenue, the only access to Ott Distributors. North Charleston’s public works complex is also on Aragon Avenue, but is relocating to a new facility.
“I’m all for progress,” Hester said. “I’m pro-port and pro-railroad.”
“Let’s just get some other access,” he said. “Let’s make sure it doesn’t affect the business.”
After rolling past Ott Distributors the long Norfolk Southern trains would follow rebuilt lines directly behind homes on the south side of Bexley Street, following a loop that would eventually take the trains around Park Circle and across North Rhett Avenue — the scene of regular train-related traffic back-ups.
Charles Campbell lives on Bexley Street on property adjacent to the rail right-of-way, and his main concern about the port rail plan is when it will produce new local jobs.
“It could mean a lot of employment for a lot of people,” he said. “The bills keep coming, and there is no work.”
The federal review of the project is not expected to be complete until 2015, so the project won’t create lots of jobs soon.
Another Bexley Street resident, William Davis, is retired and unconcerned about the reactivation of the rail line. Trains were using that line when he moved to Bexley Street in 1978, and continued until some time in the 1990s.
“Trains don’t bother me,” said Davis. “They were running here when I moved in.”
On Bexley Street west of Spruill Avenue, CSX has an active rail line, and trains operated by CSX would use those tracks.
Back on the edge of the former Navy base, the Palmetto Railways plan calls for running the freight lines up what is now McMillan Avenue, eliminating most of that road and also dead-ending St. Johns Avenue.
The issue there is, if St. Johns is closed at the McMillan Avenue end, all the homes and a school along the road would have just one way in or out — following the road north until it turns into O’Hear Avenue and crosses Noisette Creek at the north end of the base.
“That’s a concern to us, because of the police and fire access,” said Mayor Keith Summey.
It’s also a concern for Beverly Hodges, whose two sisters live on St. Johns Avenue not far from McMillan Avenue. One of the sisters is a double-amputee who often needs urgent medical care.
“I would honestly hate to lose that road,” she said. “The police and fire departments use that road, and they are here in seconds.”
The Army Corps of Engineers will be reviewing such concerns for most of the next year as they study Palmetto Railways plan to prepare an environmental impact statement. When a draft report is finished late next year, the public will have an opportunity to review the statement and make comments, and then a final report will be crafted.
Few members of the public will see greater impacts from the rail yard than residents of the Chicora-Cherokee community, some of whom live within 100 feet of the planned facility.
There, Palmetto Railways plan calls for building a sound barrier wall along the length of the rail yard, to buffer the homes east of Spruill Avenue that sit along roads that dead-end at the base property.
Rufus Gholson lives on Carlton Street, near the planned rail yard, and he’s concerned about noise and pollution, but also hopes to see economic development.
“Hopefully it will be a good thing for the whose area — Chicora-Cherokee and Union Heights,” he said. “I grew up in Chicora-Cherokee, and we’ve had it bad for a long time.”
When the port that’s under construction at the south end of the former Navy base went through the environmental review process that the rail yard is just now beginning, one outcome was that the State Ports Authority agreed to donate $4 million to community groups in the area, over a period of years.
“It seems like someone other than the rail companies should benefit from them building this super yard,” said Rahim Karriem, president of the Union Heights neighborhood and the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities group.
No more meetings are planned to discuss the scope of the environmental study, but the Corps will accept comments until Dec. 14. Email comments@NavyBaseICTF.com or mail comments to: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District, c/o Nathaniel Ball, 69-A Hagood Ave., Charleston, SC 29403.
For detailed information about the rail yard plan and study visit navybaseictf.com.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552