When half of downtown Columbia comes to a crawl in the middle of a workday, you know what it must be: the trains.
A problem that might cost the city tens of millions of dollars to solve someday is getting another review thanks to a $2 million study of the rail lines that crisscross the south Assembly Street corridor.
Besides being an inconvenience, the train tracks are a safety hazard and “an economic development and jobs issue for folks to get around downtown,” said Bob Guild, neighborhood association president forthe historic Granby mill village area off Huger and Whaley streets.
Recently, he said, his car was totaled when a malfunctioning railroad signal on Huger Street prompted another driver to panic and speed into the rear of Guild’s car.
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A deal struck in the 1980s to reroute tracks from the Vista to his neighborhood just south of downtown was the beginning of double the train headaches for him and hundreds of daily travelers, Guild said.
“We’ve borne the brunt of solving the need to develop the Vista,” Guild said. “They’ve shifted that problem to our neighborhood and deferred solving the problem all these years. We’re impatient to see the problem fixed.”
City Council recently OK’d spending nearly $600,000 from the city’s streetscaping account to match a federal grant toward the $2 million cost of updating an existing rail study. Federal grants should cover the rest of the cost, according to the S.C. Department of Transportation.
Among the long-considered options for improving the decades-old problem of active train tracks intersecting with busy downtown traffic are:
▪ Consolidating some of the rail lines that carry CSX and Norfolk Southern trains.
▪ Closing some of the street-level railroad crossings on Assembly Street and in the mill village neighborhoods.
▪ Elevating some rails to bridges over busy streets.
We’re impatient to see the problem fixed.
Bob Guild, Granby neighborhood president
A study in 2009 already produced several options for consolidating and relocating railroad tracks along Assembly and Huger streets and in the nearby neighborhoods. But a lack of funding – to the tune of $100 million or more – kept the project from moving forward.
The city at the time unsuccessfully sought funding for rail relocation from the State Infrastructure Bank and the first proposed Richland County transportation penny sales tax.
Now, enough growth and change have happened at downtown’s southern edge that the impact study must be updated before the city can again consider a solution. Retail, offices and restaurants have stretched farther south. And there are more apartments and student apartments to accommodate the University of South Carolina’s growing student body.
It won’t be an easy fix.
“It’s definitely going to be a massive project,” city engineer Dana Higgins said.
It could take two years or more to complete the updated rail study, Higgins said. “After that,” she said, “there’s going to be a lot of interest to see this move forward. Our leaders are very interested. It’s important to them.”
The next hurdle, of course, could be the same as it was before: cost.
Higgins said the city could consider applying again to the State Infrastructure Bank, and there could be opportunities for federal grants.
For Guild, the city’s next steps are “not a matter of will but a matter of priorities.”
“I’m not holding my breath, but I’m very eager to see the city fix the issue and solve the problem that the city created for us,” he said.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.