MYRTLE BEACH — Carolina Southern Railroad owner Ken Pippin said Wednesday afternoon he thinks that, ultimately, an arrangement will be made to get the railroad back in service.
But he didn’t know if he’ll be a part of it.
“I think there’s a bright future for the railroad,” Pippin said one day after Horry, Marion and Columbus, N.C., counties filed a motion with the federal Surface Transportation Board to resolve the situation.
A second filing asks the STB to vacate a Modified Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity that allowed the railroad to operate on 14 miles of Horry County owned track between Conway and Myrtle Beach. The county declared the contract between it and the railroad in default earlier this year over back rental payments and then canceled it when the payments weren’t made.
“I’m very glad to hear that the railroad has a high level of importance to all three counties,” Pippin said. “I think that, ultimately, there will be an arrangement to get it running again.”
Pippin said he’s not sure what his response will be to the STB filing, but Dennis Watson, STB spokesman, said he has 20 days to file it.
Within 12 days of the answer, Watson said, representatives of the railroad and the three counties and others who filed the motion must meet, either in person or by telephone, and discuss the case. By 19 days later, the two sides either jointly or separately must file a proposed procedural schedule.
The STB will then issue a procedural schedule that Watson said will include three filings: opening statements, replies and finally rebuttals to the replies.
The STB will review the filings and issue its decision.
Watson said the procedural portion of the process and the time to reach a decision could each take several months.
In the meantime, Pippin said he still has active potential buyers for the railroad.
Carolina Southern ceased operations in August 2011 because of problems on its bridges. According to one of the filings to the STB, the railroad issued an embargo that suspended service over its rail lines in August 2012. The filing said the time without service has exceeded the reasonable time in which it was required to restore rail service, sell the railroad or file an application or petition for abandonment of the lines.
“The law does not permit (the railroad) to keep the embargo in place indefinitely, as it is doing,” the filing says. “(The railroad’s) embargo has become an unlawful abandonment.”
Horry County businesses who used the railroad say they have had extra costs to get raw materials and ship out finished products because of the lack of rail service. Metglas president Dodd Smith estimates it costs his company an extra $100,000 to $300,000 a year in transportation costs without the railroad.
Officials in Columbus County worry that a Georgia Pacific lumber mill that employs more than 400 people could close permanently if rail service is not restored.
While Pippin said he is under a confidentiality agreement with potential buyers not to talk about any details, Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said he met with one group identified as potential buyers.
“They wanted to meet with me and get a feel for the politics that’s going on,” Lazarus said.
He said he explained to them that it is a business situation, that the county wants service restored on Carolina Southern’s track and that Horry is trying to protect its assets. The only way to get locomotives on the county-owned track is over track owned by Carolina Southern. Lazarus said he made it clear to the group that there are contractual obligations between the county and Carolina Southern that will have to be cleared up.
“I think it kind of put them at ease,” Lazarus characterized the group’s reaction.
Pippin said it’s his impression that it has been the county’s plan to vilify him.
He said that he and his attorney, Tommy Brittain, were unable to get meetings with county officials prior to a decision on the STB filing to explain to them about the his determination to sell the land and that there were potential buyers.
But Pippin saved his harshest criticism for members of a two-state railroad committee that met for a year trying to find a way to restore rail service.
He said that some members of the committee at first didn’t want him at the meetings and after that, he got notices of only some of its meeting.
“We have been off and on the email list since they started this,” he said. “... that’s because they don’t want to work with us.”
Several months ago, the committee issued a vote of no confidence in Pippin because members said he had not shown a willingness to work with them. Gary Lanier, chairman of the Columbus County Economic Development Commission, said that the only solution the Pippins had for the railroad’s dilemma was government money to pay for the needed repairs.
Pippin said he didn’t have the estimated $2 million to fix the railroad, but refused Wednesday to discuss liquidating assets to help pay the cost.
Lanier said he thought Pippin would be willing to put forward some money of his own if he earnestly wanted the work done.
According to Horry County property records, Pippin owns three Grand Strand condominiums with a combined value of about $900,000. Property records in Richland County say that the railroad owns an apartment building about one block from the state capitol with a value of $775,000.
But Pippin dismissed suggestions that his property should even be a part of the discussion.
“Their idea of what can be liquidated is ridiculous,” he said.
The fact that he is seeking public money to fix his railroad does not open the door to a discussion of his personal assets or even easement payments the railroad is being paid as a part of the solution, he said.
“We’re still operating part of the line,” he said. “We still have employees. We’re still doing maintenance.”
He wouldn’t give the lowest offer he would take for the sale of his railroad, but said a fair price would be based on an appraisal of its assets.
And while he said no decisions have been made about his response to Tuesday’s filings with the STB, he said there were things in it that didn’t seem “quite accurate.”
“I think they’ve made it very personal,” Pippin said of the seeming opposition against him. “I don’t understand that.”
Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.