A rail line that would carry up to 50,000 cars a year from the new Volvo plant off Interstate 26 near Ridgeville is moving closer to construction with a federal study showing little environmental impact is expected from the project.
The Surface Transportation Board is taking public comments through Dec. 30 on its draft environmental assessment of the 28-mile line to be built by Charleston-based Palmetto Railways, a division of the S.C. Commerce Department.
The line would move Volvo cars bound for North American dealerships on five round-trip weekly routes between the automaker's campus at the Camp Hall Commerce Park and a site near the Cross Generating Station owned by electric utility Santee Cooper. At that point, the rail cars would transfer to an existing CSX-owned line for transportation to a distribution site in Columbia.
The board studied noise impacts, potential effects on residents and communities as well as impacts to the environment, wildlife and other resources.
"Impacts on the resources evaluated ... were all considered minimal, with the exception of impacts on two resources — wetlands and noise/vibration," the document states, adding those impacts are not considered significant.
Palmetto Railways has proposed buying land for preservation and credits in an existing wetlands mitigation bank as compensation for the 103 acres of wetlands that would be destroyed to accommodate the new tracks. The railroad also will use noise-dampening rail materials to lower the noise and vibration impacts.
Construction would take place during daylight hours within a 100-foot right-of-way that runs mostly through rural pine plantations. Palmetto Railways estimates it will take between 18 and 20 months to complete the project, which would cross 10 public roads and 55 private roads.
The line also could serve other tenants of the nearly 4,000-acre Camp Hall industrial site being developed by Santee Cooper and open rural areas up for economic development.
"By establishing this new, rail-served industrial corridor ... South Carolina will have the opportunity to attract much-needed taxable investment and job creation to an under-served area of our state that will be able to share in the economic prosperity driven by growth in and around Charleston,” state Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt told The Post and Courier earlier this year.
The rail link is among roughly $250 million worth of incentives the Commerce Department and other government agencies promised Volvo in 2015 to get the automaker to build its $1.1 billion campus.
Palmetto Railways has applied for a federal grant to pay for up to 50 percent of the rail link’s costs, which have not been announced. Part of the construction also will be financed by a portion of $46 million in bonds the state approved last year to help Volvo expand its Lowcountry site.
Once the public comment period is over, federal regulators will conduct a final analysis of the project that responds to all comments that are received. A permit allowing construction could follow.
Volvo, based in Sweden and owned by China's Geely Holding Group, is the anchor tenant at the Camp Hall site. The automaker plans to employ nearly 4,000 workers at its only U.S. manufacturing campus by 2023. In addition to the S60, Volvo will build its XC90 SUV on a second production line in South Carolina beginning in 2021.