High-speed dreams on a turtle-trot budget 

S.C. Rail Roaded

Last week, an Atlanta commerce official said he was disappointed with Georgia's progress toward a high-speed rail program, but he took solace that, "South Carolina is worse off than we are."

When President Barack Obama announced the ambitious $13 billion plan for passenger rail improvements, we noticed Charleston's omission among major cities in the Southeast route. But the comments from Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce President Sam Williams speak to larger challenges for the state. Williams told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Virginia and North Carolina may be 20 years ahead of Georgia and South Carolina.

Roy Tolson, a rail coordinator for the S.C. Department of Transportation, says the criticism is tied largely to funding. The other states in the region have made sizeable investments in passenger rail programs, particularly commuter rail around congested urban areas like Raleigh and Charlotte.

Commuter rail has been batted around in various areas of the state, including a Charleston-Summerville track, but funding has been hard to identify.

"You need massive amounts of people to make these things work," Tolson says.

The state is expecting further directions in June on exactly what funding will be available for South Carolina, Tolson says.

"In the meantime, we need to put ourselves in a position to take advantage of that funding when it comes down the pipe," he says.

In the past few years, South Carolina has been working with regional partners in North Carolina and Georgia on a possible Upstate high-speed rail route, largely through a federal planning grant awarded to the Georgia DOT. But results of a feasibility study indicate that it would be a costly project for South Carolina. The stretch from Charlotte to Atlanta could cost as much as $1.4 billion and about half of that track is in the Palmetto State.

When the rough outline of high-speed routes through the Southeast were introduced by the Obama administration, most every major city, including Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte, Greenville, Atlanta, Macon, Savannah, and Jacksonville. But no Charleston. A major problem, Tolson says, is the difficulty in crafting a functional route that passes through the Lowcountry.

Passengers heading from Raleigh to Atlanta have a much easier route heading down to Charlotte, through Greenville (almost by default) and on to Atlanta. Another route would take trains straight from Columbia to Savannah and on south.

Former Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) and Congressman Henry Brown (R-Hanahan) have tried to correct Charleston's omission in the past, says Mary Graham, the Metro Charleston Chamber of Commerce's senior vice president for regional advancement.

"Our argument is that we've got millions of tourists who could take advantage of high-speed rail," Graham says.

A two-year study under way by the SCDOT will weigh the feasibility of adding a coastal track through the state that would hit Myrtle Beach, Florence, and Charleston. The plan would use existing rail lines for passenger service — a cheaper, albeit slower alternative to the new fast tracks proposed in the Upstate.

Chamber representatives will also be in Washington, D.C., later this week to speak with elected leaders on transportation issues, including high-speed and commuter rail, Graham says.

A South Carolina rail plan developed by WilburSmith Associates and released in March lays out the importance of a coastal corridor: "Relieving the increased traffic congestion in these areas, coupled with the need for visitors to access the Southeastern High-Speed Rail Corridor are both necessary and essential to the economy of South Carolina and the safety and convenience of tourists to the state."


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