Court Declines to Enjoin Port for Now, But Adds Federal Defendants
A federal judge declined to enjoin construction of a container shipping terminal in North Charleston for now, but agreed to expand a lawsuit challenging approvals of the terminal to include the Federal Highway Administration (“FHWA”) as a defendant. The Coastal Conservation League, which brought the lawsuit in late 2007, sought an order stopping construction to preserve options for adding rail connections at the terminal. While declining to enjoin construction at this point and allowing the League to refile its request, the Court granted the League’s motion to add claims against FHWA for having ignored rail connections as a means of lessening traffic on Interstate 26.
An attorney for the Conservation League stated he was encouraged by the attention to rail and said he hoped that a rail solution could be worked out even without a stay. “Our goal is to ensure that Charleston gets a world-class shipping terminal with state-of-the art rail connections that will take trucks off of I-26,” said Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We remain confident we will achieve that result.”
The S.C. State Ports Authority plans to open the new Charleston terminal in 2017, while the port’s existing terminals will not reach maximum capacity until 2023 or later. Charleston’s volume is down by about 35 percent from 2005, and dropped 19 percent in the most recent fiscal year alone.
Other ports are using new rail connections to capture a greater slice of intermodal trade. Savannah has constructed intermodal sites for both CSX and Norfolk Southern to provide direct rail access to Atlanta. Jacksonville and Norfolk/Portsmouth invested in new rail infrastructure to open up new markets while decreasing pollution and traffic impacts from trucks.
“There is no reason to rush and build a rail-less terminal that will sit empty for a decade,” said Dana Beach, executive director of the Conservation League. “It’s time to finalize a rail solution that will help Charleston compete with other ports and preserve our critical highway infrastructure.”
According to government studies, the new terminal would add 10,920 vehicle trips to I-26 every day at full build out. The same studies show that a near-dock rail facility would divert some 1,600 of the terminal’s truck trips a day away from the interstate. Without a rail connection to divert trucks, traffic from the terminal will cause I-26 to fail near the Meeting Street exit, a critical commuting corridor. The S.C. Department of Transportation has said $250 million in taxpayer money would be needed to widen the highway, but no funds are available.
Rail facilities are estimated to be far less expensive and could be built with private funding.
Note to editors: BACKGROUND ON THE PROPOSED TRUCK-ONLY TERMINAL: • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued wetlands permits for the terminal and roadway in 2007. Those were challenged in federal court by the Coastal Conservation League at the end of that year, with the lawsuit pending before a U.S. District Court in Charleston. The injunction was sought in that case. The lawsuit contends that the permits for a truck-only terminal are illegal because the agencies, in issuing them, failed to consider whether rail connections could help reduce traffic impacts on I-26. • SPA would build an almost $600 million, 287-acre terminal at southern end of former Charleston Naval Complex. SCDOT would build a $300 million, mile-long four-lane roadway connecting the terminal to I-26 via a reworked Meeting Street Interchange (Exit 217). SCDOT has said it needs to widen both sides of I-26 from the port access road to I-526, for $250 million to help deal with the 10,920 vehicles per day from the terminal, mostly trucks. • The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) must approve the port access road, its interchange with I-26, and the I-26 widening. FHWA has not made any official decisions concerning those road improvements, but the terminal under construction cannot operate without them. The court granted a motion to add FHWA to the lawsuit. • The League has also challenged the terminal’s state permits in state court. In September, the S.C. Supreme Court agreed to hear the League’s appeal of an initial decision finding the League’s challenges were brought outside the applicable time limit. A hearing before the Supreme Court is expected in the spring.
About South Carolina Coastal Conservation League The Coastal Conservation League is a grassroots non-profit conservation organization, founded in 1989 to protect the natural environment of the South Carolina coastal plain and to enhance the quality of life of our coastal communities. The League works with individuals, businesses, and government to ensure balanced solutions.