Train blocking Assembly Street in Columbia

Trains frequently halt traffic along Assembly Street in Columbia. File/Free Times

COLUMBIA — Trains that regularly block traffic at the busiest times of the day have some South Carolina legislators steaming, but others worry proposals to impose hefty fines would hurt business.

For House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, decades of frustration came to a boil last November as he sat in an hours-long traffic snafu in downtown Columbia caused by CSX and Norfolk Southern trains blocking several major streets during the morning commute.

Both companies later apologized to drivers, attributing it to trains unusually departing their rail yards in the capital around the same time. Rutherford said that was little consolation.  

"It makes no sense that in 2018, we have to guess as to what's the best road to take when these trains are a mile long, and they sit and park and block the entire bottom of Columbia without any warning whatsoever," Rutherford, D-Columbia, said.

Rail companies' "insensitivity to the citizens of Columbia and South Carolina has to stop," he added. 

Trains are a problem elsewhere in the state, including in North Charleston where they can tie up traffic at the busy commute times.

State law dating to 1902 makes it illegal for trains to block a public road. But fines of just $5 to $20 don't kick in until the train's conductor has been warned and given five minutes to clear the roadway, making enforcing the law impractical.

Rutherford's proposal, which would apply statewide, forgoes tracking anyone down. It would fine a rail company up to $5,000 for each lane blocked for more than five minutes. That penalty would double for traffic tie-ups between 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. 

A separate proposal by Rep. Robert Williams, D-Darlington, is more specific on the time of day — barring blocked intersections during lunchtime and the morning and evening commutes. But it doesn't add to existing fines.

Williams, who has also signed on to Rutherford's bill, expects the penalty to be part of the debate. Williams said his bill was also sparked by him sitting in Columbia traffic when he comes to the Statehouse.

Republican Rep. Craig Gagnon of Abbeville said he eagerly co-signed because of blockages in tiny Calhoun Falls, located along the Savannah River, and bisected by CSX tracks.

For the town of 2,000, it's not just about convenience. Delays for emergency responders are a safety hazard, but railroad officials have dismissed local officers' pleas, he said.

"Trains come in there and stop and block traffic, and there's no way to get out of town. They don't give a rip," Gagnon said. "This may make them stand up and take notice and respect the law and move their trains."

Senate Transportation Chairman Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, said he sympathizes, noting one of the state's worst train tie-ups is in his district in North Charleston. He prefers to work with the rail companies on non-legislative solutions.   

"Transportation and logistics is a growing part of our economy," Grooms said. While quality-of-life issues must be addressed, he added, "I also don't want to give some municipalities veto power over freight moving throughout South Carolina."  

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said his meetings with rail officials have helped reduce delays during peak driving times, but those will become more unavoidable as the port's expansion brings more freight trains in and out of the Charleston area. Hopefully, three promised rail overpasses will at least be under construction when phase one of the new terminal opens in mid-2020, he said. 

"Nobody minds a train crossing the road, but they can't stand it when it stops," Summey said.

A similar solution for Columbia has been discussed for decades, but there's never been funding for a proposed bridge over one the capital's major thoroughfares. With so many unmet safety and congestion needs statewide, it's not on the priority list for the next 10 years, Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said. 

In addition to adjusting train schedules in North Charleston, Norfolk Southern says it's adding tracks in Spartanburg to reduce blockings there. That construction should be completed within six months, said company spokeswoman Susan Terpay. 

However, the company operates around the clock on its 762 miles of track in South Carolina and customers' needs "drive our service schedules," she said. 

Sens. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville, and Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, said they worry the legislation would hurt businesses.

"Moving cargo out of our port city is vital to commerce," Senn said. "I blame the lack of infrastructure as the real culprit." 

No hearing for either proposal has been set. House Education and Public Works Chairwoman Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, said her staff first needs to research what the state's allowed to do under federal law. 

There are no federal regulations on blocked railroad crossings, so nothing precludes South Carolina from addressing that problem, said Desiree French, spokeswoman for the Federal Railroad Administration. She cautioned, however, that a court could throw out a state law if it prevents trains from complying with existing federal rules on issues such as train speed and length. 

In a statement, Florida-based CSX said it "works hard to minimize the impact of our operations" as it serves a growing number of businesses that depend on freight rail.

"We welcome the opportunity to work with state leaders to promote fluid freight rail traffic and further secure South Carolina's foothold as a global manufacturing hub," the statement reads. 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.