Community getting attention, but little say in rail plans

Derailed

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Residents will likely have little say in selecting the final site for a rail yard near North Charleston's waterfront. Nor will they be able to determine the volume or direction those trains will take through their community. Regardless, the focus in the debate over the state's controversial plan for a new rail yard has turned to the communities that surround the two sites.

State Rep. David Mack (D-North Charleston) began a public forum in Union Heights earlier this week by telling the few dozen residents that he wanted to give them an opportunity to "make an informed decision with regard to how they'd like to proceed." But Mack was only there to pitch the plan by the Department of Commerce to build a large state-maintained rail terminal on the Navy Yard. The City of North Charleston had targeted the former Navy base for shops, restaurants, and homes, but more than 200 acres fell into foreclosure during the recession and was hastily acquired by Commerce officials late last year.

City officials and Park Circle residents fear the state's plan will bring more train traffic through their community, particularly impacting commuters on North Rhett Avenue and the ongoing redevelopment of the East Montague commercial district. They have supported a plan offered by private firm CSX that would keep all new rail traffic to the southern end of the city. Mack says the CSX plan puts all the burden on Union Heights and Chicora-Cherokee, historically black neighborhoods that have been largely ignored.

It would be worthwhile debate what is best for these communities. The state plan would divert some traffic to the north, but it does little to address the existing blight in these communities, whereas the CSX plan includes a partnership with the city to address overdue redevelopment in that area.

But Mack's suggestion that the community members need to determine "how they'd like to proceed," something he said several times in the forum last week, suggests they'll be party to this decision. They won't. When one woman asked when the community would be able to vote on this, Mack suggested they'd have to hold their elected officials accountable.

At the forum, there was a strong consensus that the community just didn't have enough information. A.J. Davis, president of the Chicora-Cherokee Neighborhood Council, said residents deserve better than the small presentation from Mack and S.C. Public Railways, the Commerce Department arm responsible for the rail plan.

Davis called for forums over the next month at neighborhood association meetings. "Let's print out some of the plans so that people can hold the documents in their hands," he said. "We need to take the politics out of this and put the people back into it." Mack's response was that "this is coming too fast to take it to every neighborhood."

Indeed it is coming too fast. The deadline has already passed for CSX and the state Commerce Department to submit proposals to the Port Review and Oversight Commission. The group created by the legislature and led by state Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Berkeley) has asked to review the plans and offer a recommendation on what's best for the port. Both CSX and the state Commerce Department are expected to make a formal presentation on the impact of each plan as it relates to competitive, near-dock access for both rail companies and how their rail yard would enhance the port's broader competitiveness with the Port of Savannah.

"That's going to be a very important meeting when all sides will be there," Mack said. "At that point, all the plans will be presented."

Grooms tells the City Paper that the impact on the community will be a factor in the decision, but the outline of the commission's request didn't call for details on how either plan would benefit the community.

And that's unfortunate. North Charleston residents want a comparison, but the oversight commission demanded that the two presentations focus on the facts of each proposal with no mention of the alternative. It's likely that all that these communities will receive is spin. That is, until they start seeing the trains coming down the tracks.

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