Nearly everyone had left the room after the meeting of the Port Review and Oversight Commission's hearing on the rail controversy in North Charleston. It was only then that state Sen. Larry Grooms offered clues to a resolution that weren't even broached during the three-hour meeting. He pointed to a map, ran a finger down a set of train tracks, and began talking about a fix to the fight that has pitted the city of North Charleston against the state Commerce Department and power brokers in the General Assembly.
While a lot of the talk at the meeting centered around bringing all parties to a mythical "table" to hash out details, apparently Grooms and Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt had been working behind the scenes to craft a compromise. "Sometimes it's better to get an agreement ahead of time and then seal the deal when you bring the parties together," Grooms says.
Some of the ideas Grooms offered include removing an existing Norfolk Southern line that runs along I-526 and over North Rhett Avenue and replacing it with new tracks that should double the speed of trains through the corridor. Grooms also talked about improving areas where trains currently grind to a halt, interrupting the flow of traffic on North Charleston roadways.
The Goose Creek senator said that the state could abandon its plan for a state rail terminal on the northern end of the Navy Yard and return the terminal property back to Clemson University for use in its wind turbine program. Grooms also discussed offering the lion's share of the state's recent Navy Yard purchase back to North Charleston as a concession for a new route servicing Norfolk Southern trains.
Another idea that Grooms mentioned included the creation of either a terminal that would be shared by both CSX and Norfolk Southern or two separate terminals, possibly at the proposed CSX site. This new terminal, Grooms said, could be served by a third-party firm, similar to several other East Coast ports, including Savannah.
While any or all of these pieces could fit into the state's final plan — improvements to the stretch of Norfolk Southern track that runs over North Rhett is already being vetted by the Commerce Department — it's clear that Grooms is ready to play with the train set and see what works.
"You have a major problem"
On Thursday, Grooms opened the latest hearing on the rail debate with a slip of the tongue that was nearly tantamount to cussing in church. Laying out the reason for the hearing, Grooms said the new rail terminal, wherever it may go, was "for use by the State Ports Authority."
He quickly added, "No, not for use by the State Ports Authority."
If the rail fight between North Charleston and the state ends up in court, the heart of the city's case will be the port authority's 2002 agreement to keep rail out of the north end of the Navy Base. The state's defense will be that the SPA wasn't speaking for the state, just the ports authority. Grooms' mis-statement, or Freudian slip depending on your point of view, would seem to indicate that even the senator also has a problem separating the SPA and the state.
The Department of Commerce has proposed creating a shared terminal for both rail companies that "creates a balanced approach" by sending the trains in two different directions. The state has also argued that the Chicora-Cherokee and Union Heights neighborhoods on the southern end of the city would be excessively burdened by adding Norfolk Southern trains to the new CSX traffic.
At Thursday's meeting in Columbia, CSX again stated that it had a site closer to the new port that would be more efficient and would offer service to Norfolk Southern trains at-cost, a move that would make the terminal competitive as well as lower the overall cost of the project by up to $200 million.
Norfolk Southern's Robert Martinez balked, "This is not equality."
Martinez, the company's vice president of business development, called the southern area of the city the most congested portion of North Charleston. And he would know: Norfolk Southern serves both BMW and Kinder Morgan, two firms located in that area.
Martinez's statements didn't win any love from state Sen. Robert Ford (D-Charleston), particularly when the Norfolk Southern VP suggested he didn't have a problem working with CSX. "Do you ever tape your presentations and play it back?" Ford asked. "It would show you have a major problem with CSX."
Of course, the Commerce Department's inside men on the commission were still hard at work. Rep. Bill Sandifer (R-Oconee) ranted about Mayor Keith Summey, claiming that the mayor was not speaking for all the people of North Charleston and suggesting that Summey was alone in his support for CSX. Sandifer's rant prompted the outspoken mayor to speak out of turn, noting that the City Council had voted to support the CSX plan. Sandifer backed down.
But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence) was still full of fight. When he sensed a point was missing from the state's presentation, he furrowed his brow and asked, "Did I hear you say that ...," prompting the speaker to offer additional information that Leatherman seemed to already be aware of. Yet when it came time for CSX to make its presentation, the absent-minded legislator was pulling conversations out of his head from a November meeting. And when Fredrik Eliasson, CSX vice president of emerging markets, noted the company had modified its plan since that meeting "six months ago," Leatherman went to great lengths to argue the point that, in fact, it actually had been five months.
Ironically, it would appear that two Berkeley County representatives — Grooms and Rep. Jim Merrill — may be North Charleston's best chance for advocates on the oversight commission. The two men previously pushed the state to nix its port expansion for Daniel Island and move it to the Navy Yard.
In a presentation, S.C. Public Railways CEO Jeff McWhorter checked off a list of benefits of the Commerce Department plan — quiet zones, a private road between the port and the rail terminal, and a separate CSX plan to remove rail from the Park Circle community. Both Merrill and Grooms pressed McWhorter on the state's role in those decisions, pointing out these were promises the state actually had no role in.
Grooms also seemed skeptical about S.C. Public Railways' experience handling this kind of project. Eliasson noted that S.C. Public Railways is a novice at rail terminal operations, whereas his private firm is on the cutting edge of cargo transfer. The Goose Creek senator had similar concerns. "S.C. Public Railways is a great short-line hauler, but we're talking about a special facility building trains with the added complexity of building trains for two railroads," Grooms said. "Is Public Railways the best third-party operator or is there another operator that could come in?"
Grooms says the commission's next meeting will likely be behind closed doors so they can get a legal assessment of the city's agreement with the ports authority. He also mentioned that a subsequent environmental permit could be endangered by North Charleston's complaints. Grooms says those talks could impact what the commission eventually endorses.
And if no plan can be created that will work for everyone, then Grooms suggested that the state can always abandon the whole thing. "It's better not to have a [rail terminal] at all than to have an inferior plan," he said.