Groups Seek to Delay Charleston Port Construction
The Southern Environmental Law Center and S.C. Coastal Conservation League today asked a federal court in Charleston to delay construction of a container cargo terminal that would cause truck traffic to accelerate I-26 failure by almost a decade. According to the injunction request, construction of the terminal at the former Charleston Naval Base should wait until the Federal Highway Administration evaluates whether 10,000 vehicles a day can be added safely to I-26, and whether rail options could divert cargo and prevent interstate gridlock.
“With I-26 already near the breaking point, this is not the time to spend hundreds of millions of public dollars on a truck-only terminal before officials review whether I-26 can safely handle the additional traffic,” said Dana Beach, executive director of the Conservation League.
Studies done in developing the terminal showed that I-26 will fail where truck traffic from the terminal enters the highway near the Meeting Street exit, a critical commuting corridor. The S.C. Department of Transportation claims that a $300 million widening project would be needed to mitigate those impacts, but no funds are available. Although various entities have proposed rail facilities that could divert trucks form the highway, the State Ports Authority is proceeding under truck-only permits.
“Everyone realizes we need rail to be competitive and preserve a functioning highway infrastructure,” said Beach. “Months ago we warned the State Ports Authority not to start spending scarce state money on a truck-only project without first seeing whether adding rail access could prevent the trashing of I-26. Unfortunately, we must now go to court to put the brakes on to keep construction from boxing out rail options that would save taxpayers money and keep Charleston competitive and clean.”
According to the request, Charleston will not need a new terminal for at least a decade due to the economic downturn. S.C. Department of Commerce figures released in March showed that unprecedented declines in trade mean that Charleston’s existing terminals will be severely underutilized for the next decade at least. Overall, port volume is down by about 35 percent from 2005. Economic reality led other ports to delay expansions. Recently the Virginia Ports Authority announced that its Craney Island Eastward Expansion will begin a year later than planned because slumping revenues made it prudent to defer expenses.
“There’s no rush to build a terminal that would sit empty for a decade,” said Beach, noting that a new executive director will take the Ports Authority helm in September. “The port should want new management to look at this proposal with fresh eyes to see if rail makes sense. This is too important not to get right.”
BACKGROUND ON THE PROPOSED TERMINAL:
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 would widen both sides of I-26 from the port access road to I-526, for $300 million because 10,000 vehicles per day from the terminal, mostly trucks, would cause the interstate to reach failing levels of service.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued wetlands permits for the terminal and roadway in 2007, which were challenged in federal court that year by the Coastal Conservation League. That lawsuit is before a U.S. District Court in Charleston. The injunction is sought in that case.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) must approve the port access road, its interchange with I-26, and the I-26 widening. It claims not have made any decisions concerning any aspect of the project. Without the access road and interchange, the Corps told FHWA that the terminal could not be constructed.
SPA let an initial construction contract this spring with construction expected to begin shortly.
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.
About Southern Environmental Law Center The Southern Environmental Law Center is the only regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of 40 legal experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.