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Rail Harder: Is a Train Solution for Columbia in Sight?

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One car waiting for train to cross Assembly St.

A Norfolk Southern train crosses South Assembly Street, in Columbia on June 6, 2018. John A. Carlos II / Special to The Free Times

Donna Ninesling lives near Lexington Medical Center and works near Williams-Brice Stadium. So unless she wants to drive 15 miles out of her way, her route to work takes her through some of the worst potential train blockages the Capital City has to offer.

It’s not merely that trains slow and sometimes stop across major roads like Huger and Assembly in the southwest part of the city. It’s that one never knows when a train is coming, or when it’s going to stop. For national security reasons, freight train schedules aren’t publicly available — and with three major companies, Norfolk Southern, CSX and Amtrak, sending trains on criss-crossing tracks through Columbia, often waiting for each other to load trains and clear the tracks, delays are both inevitable and unpredictable.

“I hadn’t been stuck, before Friday, in probably two months. And then other times, two, three times a week, both ways,” Ninesling says. “My Facebook posts — because I would then pull out my phone and start Facebooking — would be: ‘I hate trains.’ ‘I hate trains.’ ‘Stuck at a train again.’”

“The big problem is not only is it an inconvenience, but for some people it’s an expense,” she goes on. “I’m an hourly employee. So I get to work late, who’s paying my salary? And then I’m a little frustrated and everyone at work is talking about it, because I’m not the only one. Now you’ve lost money, the company has lost productivity and everyone is frustrated.”

Ninesling was among those who showed up June 5 for a public input session hosted by the South Carolina Department of Transportation on railroad plans for the Assembly-Whaley-Huger street area. The SCDOT, in cooperation with the City of Columbia and two federal agencies, is launching into a multi-year process called an Environmental Assessment to evaluate ways to fix traffic and train conflicts in the area.

The project is giving new hope not only to those who drive through southwest Columbia, but those who live in it, like Bob Guild.

Guild, an attorney known for his environmental work, is also president of his neighborhood association, and spokesman for the three mill village neighborhoods: Granby, Olympia and Whaley.

“Right now the trains come whenever they want to. They’re their own bosses,” Guild says.

Trains pass right behind his house, practically in his backyard. Sometimes they speed through; sometimes they sit and idle their engines for hours, waiting for train cars to be loaded across the river in Cayce.

And sometimes they stop blocking Huger Street just before it takes a 90-degree turn to become Whaley Street — two of the area’s key arteries, especially during commute times.

An average of 26 trains a day pass through Columbia, Guild says.

The city has tried to fix its train problem before. It’s trying again. It’s unclear whether it’ll work this time.

And any fix is probably going to cost some group of taxpayers well over a hundred million dollars.

Plans and More Plans

Trains have been passing through Columbia — sometimes roaring, sometimes inching along — since the mid-1800s.  

Before the 1980s, it used to be worse: Trains would routinely block Gervais Street in the Vista. Then the city launched a major project to consolidate lines and sink them below street level. The tracks now run through a trench under Gervais and other streets. That change led the way for the development of the Vista.

The next phase of that project was supposed to be fixing train traffic on Assembly Street and the surrounding areas, further to the south of the Vista. A flyover bridge on Huger was proposed, and some land secured by SCDOT. But the project never happened, partly because residents were concerned it would make Olympia Avenue too much of a thoroughfare.

In Columbia, it’s common for projects to be literally shelved — studied, and then relegated to binders on shelves at City Hall.

Money has also been a persistent issue.

Front of train crossing Assembly St.

A Norfolk Southern train crosses South Assembly Street, in Columbia on June 6, 2018. John A. Carlos II / Special to The Free Times

The city relaunched the railroad-fix effort in 2009 with the Assembly Street Railroad Corridor Consolidation Project, but never got the proposed fixes funded.

Then, in 2014 the city and several other local governments applied to the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank for money for a bundle of projects including railroad changes, but the application never got anywhere.

The Capital City Mill District plan, approved by the city and county in 2017, also explores several alternatives for flyover bridges and track relocation.

As for federal money, well, it turns out the city needed to do a lot more groundwork — which is what the current process is about.

“What the city was finding as it was looking for federal funds such as the TIGER [grant, a federal transportation grant since replaced by another program], was you have to already be through this process,” says city engineer Dana Higgins, speaking about the SCDOT assessment process. “You have to kind of be closer to design plans, close to that shovel-ready process, to get construction money. So thankfully DOT was willing to take this project on.”

Using federal earmark money, a grant from the Federal Railroad Administration, and $595,000 in matching money from the City of Columbia, the SCDOT will spend from now until the end of 2020 gathering feedback and developing and evaluating plans to fix the area’s train problem. (Columbia’s matching money is coming  from the streetscaping account of the general fund.)

The process will be similar to another one going on at the moment: Carolina Crossroads, the SCDOT’s euphemistic name for proposed fixes to Malfunction Junction, where I-20 and I-26 cross just outside Columbia. The railroad process won’t be quite so rigorous — it’s an Environmental Assessment rather than an Environmental Impact Study, if you want to get technical — but the process of gathering public input, floating plans and gathering more feedback is similar.

And there are a lot of factors to consider. Building overpasses or underpasses — the likeliest fix to the railroad delays — is an expensive, sprawling process. Rocky Branch Creek runs right through the area, and frequently floods. The mill villages are historic. The state fairgrounds and Williams-Brice Stadium fill up several times a year with thousands of people. Industries abound along Bluff Road and Rosewood Drive. Student housing has boomed near the stadium and, more recently, closer to downtown.

And then there are the railroad companies.

“Our goal is to get what we’re calling a win-win-win,” explains Jennifer Necker, program manager with SCDOT. “We want to get a win for the community, and we want to get a win for the commuters who commute through the area, and we want to get a win for the railroads, to get something that will work for them, because we know we have to have their buy-in. If they aren’t on board with the project it’s going to be tough to get something going.”

Nobody from CSX or Norfolk Southern was present at the June 5 kickoff public input session. But both companies told Free Times they support the current effort.

Frank Macchiaverna, Norfolk Southern resident vice president for South Carolina, said his company is on board.

“We are supportive of the Assembly Street rail grade separation project  and have been for the many years that it has been discussed and studied,” Macchiaverna said in a statement.

“At CSX, safety is our top priority,” a CSX spokesperson said. “We are fully engaged with SCDOT and the City of Columbia on the grade separation project and look forward to continuing the dialogue with the project team.” 

Paying For It

Necker says that while there’s funding to do the Environmental Assessment, there’s no funding to do any actual design or construction.

And when it comes time to fund the project, it’s going to take some doing.

Necker says previously proposed railroad fixes for the Assembly-Huger area clocked in around $100 million, so the city will need to come up with at least that much and likely more.

Higgins, from the city, says they’re working on it.

Cars waiting for train on Assembly St.

A Norfolk Southern train crosses South Assembly Street, in Columbia on June 6, 2018. John A. Carlos II / Special to The Free Times

“The mayor, council, city staff, they’re all working with state partners” on funding plans, she says. “They see this as a state issue. Right now a lot of the inland port is accessed through City of Columbia rails. They’re working hard to try to bring funding partners to the table.”

But Joe Taylor, the former state Secretary of Commerce and a current member of the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank board, suggests the city should look closer to home.

He notes that any STIB application is going to require matching local funding, and Richland County already has a sales tax, passed in 2012, to pay for transportation projects — of which the railroad fixes are not a part.

“Where the debate should begin with railroad relocations is with the penny tax,” Taylor tells Free Times. “One of the things I’ve always wondered is if it’s such a high priority, why wasn’t it on the county’s priority list? Because if it isn’t on the county’s priority list, it ain’t a state priority.”

Early on in the county’s penny tax discussions, railroad relocations were discussed. But they never made it into the eventual package of bus funding, road widenings, greenways, sidewalks and other transportation projects that make up the current penny program.

“This discussion is bigger than the railroad crossings,” Taylor goes on. “It deals with transportation priorities in Richland County. We passed a transportation sales tax that was adopted and is scheduled to raise a billion dollars over the course of 20-something years. They had a priority list. Let’s look at the list — is it time to review it? Where was this railroad track on it?”

Mayor Steve Benjamin earlier this year floated another idea for raising the matching money: a property tax hike, one that Columbia residents would vote on.

The mayor stressed to Free Times that any money raised via a tax hike would be “exclusively” for train track relocation and for infrastructure needed to establish some “quiet zones” (where trains would cross without blowing their whistles) in the city.

Ninesling, the commuter, has still another idea: Charge the railroad companies for blocking roads and use that money for the project.

“I say fine them,” Ninesling says. “Fine them big.”

Others have suggested a similar approach, with House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford even proposing a bill this past year to increase fines for trains blocking traffic.

While it’s illegal for trains to block roads, it’s seldom enforced, as The State has reported, “largely because trains can be stopped for any number of legitimate reasons, such as changing cars, relieving crews or mechanical issues.”

Rutherford’s bill never made it out of committee.

As people weigh in to SCDOT about how they’d like to see railroads restructured in the southwest Columbia area, the city will spend the next few years continuing to look for funding.

When it comes to fixing the city’s train-traffic problems, it seems clear there’s a lot of track ahead. But at least things are in motion.   


SCDOT’s Estimated Project Timeline

First public information meeting — was held June 5, 2018

Alternatives development — May 2018 to May 2019

Conceptual engineering — June to December 2018

Second public information meeting — Fall 2018

Third public information meeting — early 2019

Draft environmental document — April 2019

Final environmental document — September 2019

Public hearing — late 2019

Final environmental decision — early 2020

More: assemblystreetrailproject.com


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