S.C., city aim to get fast transit moving

I am confident that, in time, whether it's 10 years or 20 years, that there will be a network of high-speed rail. If Charleston wasn't on it, then it would be harmful to our economy.' — Charleston Mayor Joe Riley

WADE SPEES

A high-speed mass transit system for eastern South Carolina is a long way off, but the Lowcountry is trying to get the effort on track.

The state Department of Transportation and the city of Charleston envision a designated route for passenger trains traveling more than 100 mph. They are seeking $500,000 for a study that could be a first step toward a federally designated high-speed rail corridor.

After a request from Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, the Transportation Department has applied for federal money for a high-speed rail study. A decision from the Federal Railroad Administration is expected in a few months.

If the money comes through, Riley has pledged another $125,000 for the study. The mayor said he would work with local governments and chambers of commerce to raise more matching funds for the study.

The U.S. Department of Transportation in January awarded $8 billion to states across the country to develop the United States' first nationwide high-speed intercity passenger rail service. The grants, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, would lay the groundwork for 13 large-scale, high-speed rail corridors in 31 states.

"I am confident that, in time, whether it's 10 years or 20 years, that there will be a network of high-speed rail," Riley said. "If Charleston wasn't on it, then it would be harmful to our economy."

The Midlands and the Upstate already have federally designated high-speed rail corridors. In its application, the state Transportation Department asks for funds to study a corridor connecting Savannah, Charleston, Florence and an area on the North Carolina line near Cheraw.

In the Upstate, the corridor runs from Charlotte to Greenville to Atlanta. Savannah already is on a corridor that runs to Columbia.

The state transportation department has applied for another $500,000 federal grant to develop a statewide comprehensive rail plan, and would match that grant with $125,000 in state funds. The transportation department anticipates it would take about 18 months to complete the corridor and rail-plan studies.

Roy Tolson, the transportation department's rail program manager, said the federal government recently made $50 million available for high-speed rail feasibility studies.

"It's a multistage process just to get to the point where you could apply for construction funds," Tolson said. "But if you don't start somewhere you don't get anywhere. I think the nation as a whole is taking baby steps right now."