Rail plan a blessing or curse?

A new plan by Palmetto Railways would provide CSX (above) and Norfolk Southern separate access to a 90-acre cargo-transfer yard to be built on the former Navy base.

While Carrie Morey worries about the impact a newly proposed train route will have on the small bakery she operates in North Charleston, Chip Hester is breathing a sigh of relief.

The proposed route — which would bring cargo trains into the northern entrance of a container transfer yard serving the State Ports Authority — might disrupt the bakery Morey opened in 2012 in the former officer’s quarters at the old Navy Base.

“This is going to be a major problem for us,” said Morey, whose company produces homemade biscuits and pimento cheese sold under the Callie’s Charleston Biscuits brand in the 35-year-old home along Avenue F. “This would go right into our driveway.”

The new route, which also includes a southern entrance to the transfer yard, will be the topic of a meeting organized by the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency in charge of issuing permits for the project. The Oct. 27 meeting will give residents and business owners a chance to see how the trains will navigate their areas and voice their approval or concerns.

Hester, president of Ott Distributors, said he favors the new route. A previous version had the track crossing Aragon Street, the only access road to his heating and air-conditioning distributorship. The miles-long trains carrying hundreds of 40-foot-long cargo containers every day would have trapped anyone unlucky enough to be caught in Hester’s parking lot.

“The original plan would have handcuffed us as far as our customers getting here,” Hester said,

Such is the quandary facing Jeff McWhorter, president and CEO of Palmetto Railways: One man’s preferred train route is another woman’s rail disaster.

“One of our primary goals is to minimize and mitigate the impact of our redevelopment efforts on nearby neighborhoods,” McWhorter said. “We have worked really hard in designing a facility that has the least amount of impact on the community but also meets the needs of the growing Port of Charleston.”

Palmetto Railways officials, politicians and neighborhood groups have spent years debating the best — that is, least disruptive to residents, businesses and traffic — route to a 90-acre facility where cargo containers coming through the State Ports Authority’s future Navy Base Terminal will be loaded from trucks to trains and vice-versa.

The terminal and cargo transfer facility, which goes by the official name Navy Base Intermodal Container Transfer Facility, is scheduled for completion by 2020.

The newly proposed route, which will follow existing and new tracks, offers a pair of major changes to the old route that went before the public in 2013:

A northern track would be built through the old Naval Hospital’s historic district and a new railroad bridge would be built across Noisette Creek, giving Norfolk Southern access to the container transfer site from the north end.

The new route “has no new at-grade crossings and avoids train movements along Spruill Avenue north of McMillan Avenue, thus eliminating potential impacts to residential neighborhoods and Chicora Elementary,” McWhorter said in a letter to the Army Corps.

A southern track would extend about one mile south of the cargo transfer site through a largely industrial area to connect to an out-of-service CSX right of way near the intersection of Meeting and Milford streets.

Palmetto Railways said the new route affects fewer residences than the previous version, gives both of this area’s major railroads access to the container-transfer site and helps traffic flow with an overpass on Spruill Avenue to separate vehicles from trains.

However, a new at-grade crossing would be built at Meeting Street to connect new track with the CSX right of way that exists between Meeting and King streets, affecting traffic at that location.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said he has “serious reservations” about the new route, including its impact on historical property at the former Navy base. The base hospital, for example, is on the National Register of Historic Places and the new route sends trains near that complex. Such a move would need approval from the National Park Service.

Moving through the hospital district also divides valuable development property on the northern end of the Navy base. And a financing plan for the project hasn’t been disclosed.

“We’re going to take a hard look at it,” Summey said, adding that he and other North Charleston leaders will meet with McWhorter later this week. “We’ll have to get their explanation as to why they’re doing it this way and what benefit this new plan has.”

McWhorter, whose short-line railroad is a division of the state’s Commerce Department, said Palmetto Railways is keeping community and political leaders updated on the rail plan.

“But, more importantly, we are listening to their concerns,” McWhorter told The Post and Courier. “As our project progresses and more people learn about it, I am hoping the nearby communities will see us as a good, responsive neighbor and a steward of the state.”