By Paul Gable
Horry County learned today that it would not be receiving any Tiger III program grant money from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the local railroad.
The county had applied for a $21 million grant from the program to help Carolina Southern Railroad upgrade its infrastructure.
According to information from the USDOT, $511 million was approved for grants today with $150 million for critical projects in rural areas. Ten percent of the total was approved for freight rail projects including the Muldraugh Bridge Replacement project in Kentucky.
Carolina Southern Railroad owns and operates the line from Chadbourn, N.C. to Conway, which serves the local area. It also leases 14 miles of county owned rail from Conway to Myrtle Beach.
Local rail service has been suspended since August 24, 2011 due to the need to repair four aging bridges along the line that do not meet federal standards. The cost of repairing those bridges is estimated to be $700,000 according to Carolina Southern General Manager Jason Pippin.
Initially, Carolina Southern learned in May 2011 that seven of its bridges did not meet federal guidelines. It voluntarily suspended service while making repairs to those bridges. Service resumed August 3, 2011 but was shut down again August 24th when federal regulators re-inspected the work and identified four bridges that needed more work.
The grant money would have gone to long term projects improving the railroad’s infrastructure according to Carolina Southern officials. Now, money must be found from other sources to get the railroad back in operation.
Brad Lofton, Executive Director of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation, told County Council last week that several local industries had expressed concerns that rail service was not in operation.
“This is an issue affecting existing industry in the county,” said Lofton. “Several of those industries, Metglas in particular, have expressed concern that we do not currently have rail service.
Lofton said rail service was an essential part of the county’s economic development plans. In response to the current problems, MBREDC recently established a Railroad Committee to “explore sustainable transportation options as it applies to rail service.”
Sam Bennett, Manager of Economic Development for Santee Cooper, is chairing the committee. Bennett said everything possible must be done to get the railroad back in operation in the short term and a solution for its viability must be found for the long term. Bennett said railroad infrastructure was too vital for the local economy for it to be shut down.
Santee Cooper uses Carolina Southern to transport coal to its Grainger electricity generating plant in Conway. Metglas uses the railroad to ship in raw materials and ship out finished product and Martin Marietta ships in aggregate material for its asphalt and concrete operations located in the Pine Island area.
According to the USDOT announcement, TIGER grants are awarded to transportation projects that have a significant national or regional impact. The Department also gives priority to projects that are expected to create and preserve jobs quickly and stimulate increases in economic activity.
On the surface, one must wonder how much politics played a part in the grant process in general and in Horry County’s loss in particular.
The only two projects to receive grants in South Carolina are located in Rep. Jim Clyburn’s 6th Congressional District. Clyburn is the only Democratic representative to Congress from South Carolina.
Were those the only two worthy projects submitted from South Carolina? Did the Obama administration look to reward a party stalwart? Did the professed opposition to federal stimulus funding by our Republican representative and two Republican senators hurt Horry County’s chances for a portion of the grant money?