Battle over rail heats up

Councilman Elliott Summey opposes a plan to allow rail access from the north end of the former Navy base to the new port because he said it would disrupt development. Here, he walks in one of the areas of concern .

The belated efforts to provide rail access to the port facility planned at the old Naval Base have spawned a bitter political conflict.

The port plan did not originally include on-site rail, but rail is now seen as a necessity, raising questions about where to route the freight trains. The outcome will shape the future of the port and communities in Charleston and North Charleston.

One issue is a state effort, opposed by the city of North Charleston, to consider providing rail access to the new terminal through the north end of the former Navy base, potentially disrupting several of the city's top redevelopment initiatives.

Opponents say that creating two near-port rail yards on the eastern side of the Neck Area would better serve the port, preserve North Charleston's interests, and reduce truck traffic.

Charleston County Council weighed in on the growing conflict Thursday, with a near-unanimous recommendation backing North Charleston's position. The resolution was introduced by Councilman Elliott Summey, son of North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey.

Councilman Paul Thurmond declined to vote, saying later that he needed more information, and Councilman Henry Darby was absent. The remaining seven council members voted for the resolution. The measure will get a second vote when County Council meets Tuesday.

"The intent of the resolution is to say that, first of all, the port needs rail in order to survive," said Councilman Summey. "We also need to respect the quality of life for our citizens. Here's a way to get it done."

The resolution says Charleston County opposes state legislation that could allow rail access from the north end of the base to the new terminal. The resolution supports development of intermodal rail yards at the Macalloy and Promenade sites.

The 135-acre Macalloy site sits across Shipyard Creek from the old Navy base. Using that site would require moving a yet-unbuilt access road, a project finally moving forward after years of being mired in permitting and planning.

Promenade, a 200-acre site located off Morrison Drive, just north of the Ravenel Bridge's East Bay off-ramp in Charleston, is the site of Charleston County's former Romney Street and Holston landfills. Until recently, it was touted as the future home of a mixed-use development with 1,500 hotel, condo and townhouse units, and a large amphitheater.

Shipyard Creek Associates now controls an interest in both properties, and local developer Robert Clement has been promoting plans to create the two rail yards supported by County Council. The idea is that the sites would together give the two major rail carriers, CSX and Norfolk Southern, access to the new terminal.

Clement said that shifting development plans for Promenade from hotels and condos to a rail yard "seemed better for the community, and better for the state."

Clement said the plan would reduce truck traffic, use an existing rail line between upper King and Meeting streets, and avoid harm to the Noisette development and a Clemson facility on the old base.

The state action opposed in the County Council resolution refers to a bill backed by Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, and Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, that could open to door to transferring an existing rail line and right of way at the north end of the base to a state-run railway operator.

Merrill said the goal is to make sure one rail carrier, CSX, does not get a monopoly on the new terminal. He said the state legislation appears to have pushed opponents of the northern access option to find other ways to create duel access.

"Until we put that (legislation) in there, nobody was even doing any talking, of any substance," Merrill said.

"I think our goals, in the end, are very similar," Merrill said in a telephone interview. "Hopefully we can have an agreement between state, the Ports Authority, the municipalities and railroads. Then we can all be happy and sing Kumbaya."

Summey, the county councilman, said that pushing any plan to bring rail into the terminal from the north will only guarantee that "there won't be a port for 10 or 15 years" because of litigation that would ensue.