Talks between the state and the city of North Charleston about how to provide rail service to a future shipping terminal on the former Navy base have gone off track.
The breakdown raises the likelihood of a costly court fight early next year that could have profound repercussions for the state’s budget and the quality of life in its third-largest city.
“We are at an impasse with the city of North Charleston, to be blunt about it,” House Speaker Bobby Harrell said recently.
Harrell said the state has been “having some difficulty” trying to reconcile with the city “about what it will take for us to be able to accommodate them.”
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, who spent several hours this week being interviewed under oath by lawyers involved in the dispute, agreed that talks have stalled.
“I’m saying we’ve got some hard-headed people in the state of the South Carolina, and they’re probably saying we have some hard-headed people in the city of North Charleston,” Summey said. “We’re going to get to the point where we’re going to have to say, ‘Let’s go to court.’?”
At issue is a proposed $128 million rail yard on the former Navy base, where shipping containers from a planned state-run port terminal just to the south could be loaded onto and removed from train cars.
Harrell and other state officials have said the facility must be configured so that the region’s two main railroad haulers, CSX and Norfolk Southern, have “dual access” to the property, to ensure that port customers have a choice.
Also at issue is what the state would offer the city to compensate for any erosion in the quality of life in neighborhoods that will see extra traffic, pollution and noise.
In what has been described as a friendly condemnation, the state Commerce Department and its Public Railways Division are seeking to acquire a large site for the rail yard on the former base. Clemson University is the owner of the property.
“We estimate it will take 3½ to 5 years to obtain permits and build the project,” Commerce and Public Railways said in a statement Friday.
The agency said the latest plan calls for running a new line from the north end of the proposed rail yard site and tying it into an existing set of CSX-owned tracks at Spruill at McMillan avenues. It also said it would be willing to build a new, parallel line in the right of way next to the existing CSX line.
The previous route would have affected historic areas of the former base near the old naval hospital.
“The current route has evolved over the past year,” according to the statement.
The latest plan has been “discussed on numerous occasions” with the city, “and it is our understanding the city is opposed to it,” the statement said.
The state agencies declined to speculate about the reasons for the impasse with North Charleston officials.
Summey has argued that running a rail line out of the north end of the former base violates a legal agreement between the city and another state agency, the State Ports Authority. The Public Railways plan shows access from the north and south ends of the rail yard site.
Summey declined to specify what he wants as far as a rail route or possible compensation that the state might give the city.
Officials on the other side of the table have said privately that the city’s demands have become increasingly unreasonable and are constantly changing. Those on the city’s side said their concerns aren’t being taken seriously enough, possibly because state officials think the city is playing a weak hand.
Summey said Friday that negotiations could resume once the legal depositions are over and both sides take a fresh look at where the dispute stands.
“It may start back, but right now, I would say if I were gambling man, the odds are more than 50 percent that we go to court,” he said. “We’ve been trying to get through it with a pair of boxing gloves. It comes to a point where you have to take the gloves off and completely fight your way through it.”
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