The Carolina Southern Railroad Problem
By Paul Gable
Government and business officials from Horry, Marion and Columbus (NC) counties will form a new committee to discuss options for getting Carolina Southern Railroad back into operation.
Service on the railroad has been suspended since August 2011 due to structural problems with bridges on the system were discovered during an inspection by Federal Railroad Administration officials. The railroad voluntarily suspended service after initial and follow-up inspections revealed the bridge problems.
The railroad has spent approximately $400,000 repairing bridges along the line, but estimates at least another $1.5 million must be spent to complete the bridge repairs. Additionally, track upgrades are considered necessary for long term operation of the railroad.
Service on Carolina Southern is considered a key element in the economic health and future development in the three counties.
Carolina Southern has been turned down twice for grants from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program. Receiving a TIGER grant is not easy. Only one project in either of the Carolinas, an urban project in Raleigh, was approved in the last round of grants.
Carolina Southern, with the help of Horry County grant writers, applied for $12.5 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation in the latest TIGER grant cycle.
Matching funds from state and local governments are part of the TIGER grant process. No matching funds were pledged from South Carolina state agencies with the recent application while North Carolina DOT designated $350,000 and Horry County designated $600,000 in matching funds.
Yet, at the last quarterly meeting of the S.C. Department of Commerce Division of Railways, a recommendation to acquire the South Carolina portion of the Carolina Southern system through eminent domain was discussed. Approximately 75 percent of the total mileage of the line is located within South Carolina.
No money was available to provide matching funds for the TIGER grant application, but the state is considering buying a significant portion of the railroad?
While the committee is in its beginning stages, serious consideration must be paid to the form and composition it takes before significant amounts of public funds, whether they be federal, state or local, are considered to help the railroad.
Suggestions that it should ultimately take the form of a new, regional authority have been heard. Another quasi-governmental, free standing authority that expends public funds with little to no oversight is the last thing we need.
Consider that some of the local members involved once thought it would be a great idea to spend hundreds of millions of public dollars to build a monorail system in and around Myrtle Beach. Hey, it’s not their money!
Should the expenditure of public dollars on a private business be considered?
Before this process gets too far along, steps should be taken to insure that those who are making the decisions about what to do with the railroad and spending public dollars on a private business are subject to direct election by the voters.