A proposed rail yard where cargo boxes moving through the Port of Charleston would be transferred on and off freight trains cleared a major hurdle Friday with the Army Corps of Engineers issuing its final environmental impact study for the facility.
"This project has been a long time in the making and this is an important, necessary step in the process," Bobby Hitt, the state's commerce secretary, said in a written statement.
The 118-acre site is near Hobson Avenue and Viaduct Road on the former Navy base, and it would be built and owned by Palmetto Railways, a division of Hitt's agency. It's designed to reduce the volume of cargo moving on highways, with each train using the facility able to haul as much cargo as 280 trucks.
The nearly 1,200-page impact report, with thousands of pages of supplemental material, details how the North Charleston project, if completed, would affect traffic, neighborhoods, air and water quality, wildlife, noise and a host of other factors.
Army Corps officials will use the document to help determine whether the required construction permit will be issued. The agency is accepting written comments on the study through July 31 and hopes to make a final decision this year.
Jeff McWhorter, CEO of Palmetto Railways, said he hopes the $130 million rail hub will be ready by late 2020, about the same time the State Ports Authority will open a new container terminal at the south end of the old Navy base.
McWhorter said the cargo transfer yard "will help to meet the needs of the growing Charleston region, provide support to the expanding ... Ports Authority and help reduce highway congestion."
In addition the Army Corps, the project requires approval from the Federal Railroad Administration, which is reviewing Palmetto Railways' application. The state-run, short-haul rail carrier has applied for funding through one of the administration's loan programs and is considering other financing options to cover the construction costs.
A draft of the impact study was first presented in early 2016, and public hearings that followed led to several changes in the project's scope to address local traffic, noise and neighborhood concerns.
For example, Palmetto Railways agreed to give $3 million toward a new recreation center for neighborhoods affected by the project and another $1 million for affordable housing, educational and work training initiatives.
"We've worked with neighboring communities and have taken many of their suggestions and incorporated them into our plans," McWhorter said. "As part of being a good neighbor, we will be providing educational and employment opportunities, and we've taken measures to minimize air, noise and vibration impacts."
Some issues remain unresolved. North Charleston and Charleston officials say the rail route will result in potentially unsafe traffic delays, and historic preservationists aren't happy that some buildings within the Charleston Naval Hospital Historic District would be demolished.
As proposed, the rail yard would include multiple tracks, cranes, container stacking areas and administrative buildings. Palmetto Railways says it will develop the site with the environment in mind. For example, the use of electric cranes would reduce noise and emissions while partial automation would eliminate some truck traffic on nearby roads.