State Rep. Bill Sandifer (R-Somewhere other than North Charleston) squints at two different maps. He has found an access road off Spruill Avenue that's clearly evident on one, but only represented by faint hash marks on another. The maps are part of shipping company CSX's pitch for a private rail yard to service the Port of Charleston. It's an apparently fruitless proposal, as Sandifer and other state legislators work tirelessly to prove the company is guilty of ... well, hold on and maybe they'll find something.
Maybe like those hash marks. Sandifer suggests CSX is trying to hide something with the different drawings. It turns out the two maps were developed independently by two engineering firms. Runty-yet-powerful Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Somewhere other than North Charleston) peeks his head up from the other side of the table, his ears perked at an opportunity. He points to his page like he's found the X on a treasure map. "You raise an interesting question I hadn't seen," he says with evident suspicion. "Why would you have two engineering firms?" He is told that one was done by a traffic engineer and the other by a rail engineer. Leatherman goes on to ask the question one more time, even after getting the answer.
Such was the theater last Friday at the special meeting of the legislature's Port Review and Oversight Commission. The commission was presumably in town for a fair vetting of two rail plans to service the port and the new terminal at the south end of the old Navy Yard with a crowd of more than 150. The CSX proposal would send its trains as well as those of competitor Norfolk Southern at a rate that would keep the two lines competitive. But the state Department of Commerce is steaming ahead with a competing proposal that sends Norfolk Southern trains north, right through an area targeted by the city for urban renewal and driving more trains through the Park Circle area. The community is incensed, and the city has pledged to fight the state's plan in court and possibly delay the nearby port expansion plans, if necessary.
CSX Vice President Fredrik Eliasson started out with a cordial pitch for the company's plan, but the 10-minute-long Mapgate was just one example of the two hours of flak from legislators. At the beginning of the meeting, Commission Chairman Larry Grooms (R-Somewhere other than North Charleston) said that dual access for the two companies was the main issue determined by the commission. Eliasson started his pitch by addressing that concern — Norfolk Southern trains would be serviced at the private terminal at-cost. Dual access wouldn't come up again, but Grooms, who is quickly becoming a Tea Partier in name only, would move on to another priority: "Our main question would be how rail traffic is routed in and out of the region."
Rail neighbors were very important to the legislators. Pointing to one stretch of rail, Leatherman asked whether it affected the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood like he was a resident or frequent visitor. He is neither, evident by the fact that he was pointing at tracks in the Union Heights neighborhood to the south. He also repeated a false statement that a new route in the CSX plan along Stromboli Avenue would divide the two communities. While it's true that the proposed tracks would separate Chicora-Cherokee and Union Heights, the two neighborhoods are already divided by a series of large industrial lots currently being used for cargo storage. According to CSX's plan, rail would cut through this industrial wasteland while the railway would also work with the city to redevelop surrounding parcels and help revitalize the community.
The commission's two hour-plus vetting of the CSX plan was followed by a 20-minute presentation and review of the state's proposal from Commerce contractor Wilbur Smith Associates. What few questions that WSA's Richard Taylor fielded were either meant to bad-mouth the CSX proposal or find ways to get the state's plan up to par. For instance, the CSX designs would use wide electric-run cranes that are better for the environment and more efficient from a time-management perspective. Already burdened with additional costs for a Cosgrove Avenue overpass and substantial rail improvements on the Navy Yard, the state's plan includes smaller diesel cranes "to keep upfront costs down." Sandifer told them he wanted to see a budget with the electric-run cranes.
With the meeting entering the fourth hour and the crowd thinning, the buzz centered around a single fact: The parties involved had yet to sit down at the same table to hammer out a plan. The City of North Charleston and CSX worked together last year to develop the company's proposal, while the state Department of Commerce and powerful legislative players like Leatherman worked quietly to develop its Navy Yard plan. But all of these folks have yet to make it to the same table. "If we could get everybody to the table, we could make this work," said North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey.
But does there really even need to be a next time? The state rail proposal included a detailed timeline: construction should begin in early 2013 and finish by early 2015. Grooms tried to suggest that the commission could endorse one plan over the other, take bits from each proposal, or opt for no rail yard. Oh, the suspense! But the decision seems all but settled in Columbia.
When Oak Terrace Preserve Homeowners President Paul Wilczynski lamented the damage the state's plan would have on the Noisette redevelopment at the Navy Yard, Leatherman was dismissive. "That's long gone, isn't it?" Considering his inability to find North Charleston neighborhoods on a map, Leatherman may have a hard time finding it, but there are still portions of the Noisette community that weren't gobbled up by the state while the property was in foreclosure. It's just that those properties that are left are going to have a tough time finding tenants with new railroad tracks running through the Navy Yard.
Wilczynski says he remembers being bullied as a kid decades ago. "I certainly don't like seeing the City of North Charleston bullied now."