Railroad committee members refuse to sponsor federal grant for repairs

sjones@thesunnews.comMay 15, 2013 

— A two-state railroad committee on Thursday issued a vote of no confidence in the owners of Carolina Southern Railroad, when a representative of each government on the committee said the city or county would not sponsor a federal grant to get the railroad running again.

Not only was it a vote of no confidence, said Horry County Councilman Jody Prince, but it was a vote that the committee does not feel that Ken and Jason Pippin will deal with it earnestly.

The Pippins did not attend the meeting. Jason Pippin referred a call for comment to his father, Ken Pippin, who asked what substance committee members had to back up their statements and then put the ball in their court.

“How has the committee demonstrated the importance of the railroad?” he asked.

The lack of money from the federal grant means there are no funds to fix bridges along the railroad line, which has deficiencies that have kept it shutdown for more than a year.

The committee further approved two resolutions, one recognizing that rail service is an essential need in Horry, Marion and Columbus, N.C., counties which are home to the approximately 100 miles of track. The second resolution said that the committee encourages ownership of the railroad that will give it sustainable service.

The absence of service has cost some Horry County businesses significant money to find other ways to get raw materials in and finished products out. Columbus County is trying to hold onto a Georgia Pacific lumber mill and its 400 jobs but will not do so without rail service.

Prince said he believes that potential buyers have offered to purchase the railroad, but the Pippins have turned them back.

Ken Pippin said there have been no serious or substantive offers made to buy Carolina Southern.

Doug Wendel, co-chairman of the two-state committee and board chairman of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp., acknowledged after the meeting that there are few places left to turn to revive service on the line. He suggested that lawsuits could be forthcoming over unpaid bills, and the need to settle any possible findings against them could force the Pippins to sell.

Ken Pippin said the railroad’s only debt is $450,000 it owes Horry County for three years’ back rent of the county’s lines from Conway to Myrtle Beach.

Should lawsuits not bring about a sale, Wendel said, the committee will have nowhere to go but to the federal Surface Transportation Board, hoping that it will force a sale of the railroad.

Henry Lowenstein, a professor at Coastal Carolina University, told the committee that this round of the federal grant, called a Tiger Grant, would have required local sources to match every federal dollar with $4 raised locally. That alone likely doomed the chance that an area government would sponsor a grant application, he said, but there were other requirements that could not have been met by the June 3 deadline.

They included a detailed project management plan which must have a cost attached to each unit of the plan, a wetlands and endangered species impact study, a risk assessment and an economic impact statement.

In addition, Lowenstein said that matching money could not be from federal funds, such as from a Community Development Block Grant, for the Tiger Grant.

Gary Lanier, director of the Columbus County Economic Development Commission, said that a successful grant would require that the two parties work hand-in-hand, something he said was not a reality as demonstrated by the Pippins’ absence at Thursday’s and other meetings and lack of sending someone else to represent the railroad.

“We just haven’t seen commitment from the other side,” Diane Ward, Tabor City, N.C.’s representative on the committee, said, “and we just don’t feel comfortable taking a risk.”

Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.

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