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Editorial: SC must address North Charleston's anxiety over new port terminal

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Leatherman Terminal (copy)

Work progresses on the 1,400-foot-wharf for Phase One of the Leatherman Terminal, the country's newest container terminal, opening in March. Walter Lagerenne, SCPA/Provided

The opening of the Hugh Leatherman Terminal in North Charleston in March will mark a major milestone for South Carolina’s port and its larger economy, heralding the most significant waterfront expansion since the Wando Terminal welcomed its first ship almost 40 years ago.

The event should be cause for celebration — it will be the first new East Coast terminal in more than a decade — and still could be, but only if more progress is made on addressing the issue that has hung over this new terminal since the State Ports Authority shifted its expansion plans from Daniel Island to the former Charleston Naval Base.

And that issue is this: How will the thousands of tractor-trailers and railroad cars that will help make up the new terminal’s circulatory system affect those living and working nearby, and what should the state do to mitigate problems related to traffic congestion, noise, air quality and the like?

The city of North Charleston twice struck agreements to address those concerns, beginning with a 2002 memorandum of understanding with the Ports Authority. The new port access road from Interstate 26 to the Leatherman terminal is mentioned there, and construction on the $200 million project is almost done.

Also mentioned, however, are three rail overpasses in the areas of Rivers Avenue and Harley Street; Rivers and Durant Avenue; and North Rhett Avenue and Interstate 526. Yet the state has ignored this commitment, leading to years of resentment from North Charleston officials.

A 2012 settlement agreement reshaped how the new terminal would be served by rail but also noted, “Nothing in this settlement agreement will be construed to waive the city’s claims against the State Ports Authority to the three overpasses referenced in the (2002) MOU.”

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So here’s the Catch-22 facing Mayor Keith Summey: He realizes building the three overpasses is no longer the best way to reduce port-related congestion. But he also has had difficulty engaging the Ports Authority — or other state leaders for that matter — in any planning to mitigate the impact on parts of his city that will need more attention. The only way he believes he can get that attention is to file a lawsuit blocking the Leatherman terminal’s opening until the state builds those three overpasses as he believes it is legally bound to do.

Fortunately, the two sides have begun talks that appear to hold promise for resolving this impasse. That’s encouraging as both sides have a lot to lose if this ultimately gets tied up in court. Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome said he has been talking with the city and with the S.C. Department of Transportation, and he expects those conversations to bear fruit soon.

A lot has changed in and around North Charleston in the past two decades, and the overpass proposed on North Rhett has been rendered unfeasible because of plans to widen Interstate 526. Meanwhile, the city’s main concerns about rail and truck traffic in and out of the terminal now revolve around Union Heights and Accabee, two neighborhoods just west and south of the terminal, not Park Circle to the north. The overpass at the Rivers-Durant intersection is 80 years old, and both Amtrak and port rail trains pass below it; some freight trains have derailed near there.

Obviously, the Leatherman terminal is not the only contributor to North Charleston’s traffic woes; the city long has been a business center for the region, and Boeing and new companies along Palmetto Commerce Parkway are feeding into it. The problem extends beyond the SPA’s turf. Members of the Charleston County legislative delegation and Gov. Henry McMaster should engage the city to ensure the state moves toward solutions in the spirit of that 2002 memorandum of understanding.

The state once acknowledged its new terminal would impact the city greatly and agreed to specific, significant steps to ease that impact. While those impacts have changed as the project and city have changed, that fact alone shouldn’t let the state off the hook.

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