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SC legislators may borrow $550M for North Charleston rail yard, barge system

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Palmetto Railways intermodal facility at Navy Base (copy) (copy)

A rendering shows the rail yard proposed to be built in North Charleston. File/Palmetto Railways/Provided

NORTH CHARLESTON — South Carolina legislators are looking to borrow up to $550 million to help pay for a pair of projects that would help move cargo at the Port of Charleston and its newest shipping terminal.

The spending plan calls for up to $400 million toward construction of a rail yard at the former Navy base in North Charleston. The State Ports Authority would operate the rail yard on roughly 120 acres near Hobson Avenue and Viaduct Road. Palmetto Railways, a division of the S.C. Commerce Department, would own the site, where CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern trains would haul cargo to and from the nearby Leatherman Terminal that's nearing completion.

Another $150 million would pay for a barge program to move shipping containers by water between the SPA's Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant and the Leatherman Terminal. The containers could then be taken to and from the rail yard via a private road. The work would include a 700-foot extension of the wharf at Wando Welch and a second wharf at the Leatherman site.

A joint resolution supporting the bond debt was introduced Wednesday by Sen. Hugh Leatherman, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the new terminal's namesake. A hearing on the matter was held Thursday by the committee's Natural Resources and Economic Development Subcommittee, which plans to make a recommendation to the full Finance Committee on Tuesday.

Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, said the projects "are crucial for the continued competitiveness of the Port of Charleston, which supports the ongoing economic development success and job creation for South Carolinians."

Newsome said the barge project "would reduce the number of trucks on roads and highways, complementing long-term road improvements and significantly enhancing air quality for the Lowcountry."

Construction for both projects is expected to take about two years.

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The rail yard has received approval from the Federal Railroad Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers, but has struggled to get financing. It and the barge facility would round out roughly $2 billion in improvements at the Port of Charleston, including the new terminal, equipment, and the deepening of the Charleston Harbor shipping channel.

Like other legislation, a joint resolution must be approved by the House and Senate before moving to Gov. Henry McMaster for approval or veto. A spokesman for McMaster did not respond to a request for comment, but the governor said in his recent State of the State speech that he opposes more borrowing.

Rick Harmon, research director for the Joint Bond Review Committee, said the proposal is well within South Carolina's borrowing capacity of about $5 billion. Such general obligation bonds for economic development have been approved in the past to provide incentives for Boeing Co., Volvo Cars and other employers as they were considering South Carolina for manufacturing sites.

The $1 billion first phase of the Leatherman Terminal will include five 169-foot-tall ship-to-shore cranes, 25 rubber-tired gantry cranes that operate on hybrid power and a terminal operating system with facial recognition technology.

The barge project has been in the works for a couple of years as a way to help reduce traffic on Interstate 526. 

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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