Riding the rails

If an Upstate inland port is built, Norfolk Southern trains will replace trucks in moving goods to and from the area’s shipping terminals, taking up to 50,000 trucks yearly off interstates in South Carolina.

The State Ports Authority’s plan to create an inland facility in Greer, where shipping containers could be transferred between trucks and trains, could boost port business and take up to 50,000 trucks off S.C. highways yearly, according to SPA officials.

The SPA board Monday tentatively approved a $1.1 million engineering contract for detailed site plans.

“This is basically to put flesh on the bones of this project,” said Joe Bryant, the SPA’s vice president for terminal development.

The idea behind creating an inland port — a concept discussed off and on for the last 30 years — is to extend the SPA’s reach by giving companies a direct rail connection from the Greenville-Spartanburg area to the Port of Charleston.

Shipping containers unloaded at Charleston port terminals could be loaded onto trains at Norfolk Southern’s intermodal yard in North Charleston and transferred back to trucks in Greer, about 220 miles inland. Containers also could be loaded in the Upstate for the rail trip to North Charleston.

The $23.5 million inland port could be up and running in just a year, and initially would take about 25,000 trucks off Interstate 26 and other highways in South Carolina, SPA President and CEO Jim Newsome said.

“Look at this like a mini-Wando Terminal, or a mini-North-Charleston Terminal, without the ships,” Newsome said.

The SPA had not publicly discussed the plan before Monday’s meeting. Now, the SPA plans to negotiate a contract worth up to $1.1 million with Illinois-based Patrick Engineering for civil engineering work. Norfolk Southern, which would provide a rail link to the facility, has not signed an agreement with the SPA and is waiting to see the engineering work completed.

“Norfolk Southern supports this initiative by the SPA and is fully engaged with them on this phase of its development,” said Robin Chapman, the rail company’s director of public relations. “Once the engineering is completed, we will be prepared to comment further on the project.”

The SPA already owns most of the land involved, along the East Poinsett Street Extension not far from Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport and the BMW North America manufacturing plant. Other manufacturers in the area include Michelin and Adidas.

However — illustrating how the debate over whether to create an inland port has changed — the SPA just five years ago sold most of the land that was to be used for such a facility, after owning the property since 1982.

While the SPA still owns roughly 30 acres of land at the planned inland port site, it used to own 87 adjoining acres. That land was sold to the nearby airport in 2007 for $2.4 million.

“At the time, we didn’t contemplate needing that acreage,” said SPA Chairman Bill Stern, who was chairman of the agency’s board at the time of the land sale.

Stern said the SPA likely will try to reacquire a portion of the land, perhaps in a land swap with the airport. The SPA owns about 900 acres of land closer to the airport, including the site of the BMW manufacturing plant.

Airport officials declined to comment, other than to say they are excited about the inland port concept.

At the Greater Greer Chamber of Commerce, President Allen Smith said his group was “thrilled to death by any investment in Greer” and pleased to learn of the SPA’s plans.

“Greer is already blessed with out-of-the-ordinary access to infrastructure,” he said, referring to the airport, Norfolk Southern and CSX rail service, and the Interstate 85 corridor. “This makes a good thing even better.”

Newsome said the Upstate port would allow for increased transportation efficiency, which would help grow the SPA’s business. With the trucking industry warning of driver shortages, Newsome said he expects shippers and manufactures to see rail as a good alternative.

Also, he said, cargo containers that now might take up valuable space on waterside terminals for days could instead be shipped inland by rail right away, benefiting the SPA.

“What we’re talking about is an eventual overnight train service between Charleston and the Upstate,” Newsome said.

The SPA already moves about 18 percent of its containers by rail, or about 178,000 containers yearly. The Greer site would essentially be a new intermodal yard on the Norfolk Southern rail route from Charleston to Atlanta.

The SPA has been discussing options for an inland port in various locations since at least 1982, the year the land for the proposed inland port was purchased.

“In 1982 it may have been an idea before its time,” Newsome said.

A 2002 state study questioned the economic benefits and concluded that ongoing subsidies would be required for an inland port, whether in the Upstate or closer to Charleston, in Orangeburg or the Summerville area.

South Carolina’s 2008 statewide rail plan revisited the concept, and said potential benefits could include relieving road congestion, spurring economic development, and enhancing port competitiveness.

“Based on the analyses performed, an inland terminal in the Upstate provides the greatest proportional share of public benefits and it is also a location with a large concentration of Port customers,” said the study by Columbia-based Wilbur Smith Associates.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @ DSladeNews.