The future ownership of Carolina Southern Railroad could be announced at the Oct. 7 meeting of the Horry County Council, Chairman Mark Lazarus said Thursday afternoon.
He said he anticipates an executive session at the meeting about the ownership and that the announcement would come when Council emerges from behind closed doors.
But the structure of the ownership seems less sure than it was just weeks ago, when Lazarus said it would be purchased jointly by the states of South Carolina and North Carolina and leased to a private operator.
That still could happen, but somewhat differently than had been previously supposed. Rather than a joint South Carolina-North Carolina commission to buy and operate the line, he said ownership of the tracks in South Carolina could be jointly purchased by the state and Horry County government and that in North Carolina jointly owned by that state and the government of Columbus County, N.C.
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Or, the line could be sold to a private owner with financial incentives from the two counties.
Carolina Southern hauled freight to and from businesses primarily in Horry and Columbus counties until 2011, when it shut down after federal rail inspectors found structural problems on bridges that had to be corrected for it to continue operating.
Railroad owner Ken Pippin has said repeatedly that the railroad doesn’t have the estimated $2 million needed for the repairs, and at least two attempts have failed to get a federal grant for the work.
Area businesses that relied on railroad transportation have had to use more expensive alternate ways to get goods in and out.
A two-state committee was formed to solve the problem, and Lazarus and Doug Wendel, the committee’s co-chairman, said Thursday they believe the solution is within reach.
The committee and Pippin reached an agreement in recent months that the railroad would be put up for sale, and since then negotiators have been working out the price and the ownership.
“I hope it’s within a week or so,” Wendel said Thursday.
The joint-state ownership of the railroad seemed to take a back seat after N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory issued a statement saying he had reservations about the joint commission.
“Acquisition of this railroad by the public sector should be the last resort,” he said in the statement.
Wendel wouldn’t give any clues of the future ownership structure, but he didn’t exclude some type of public ownership either.
“The states still might be involved,” he said.
But he also said that there could be a private buyer for the line.
Besides the $2 million estimated for critical bridge repairs, officials have said the line could need another $20 million in updates to raise it to a standard to allow trains to operate at more than 25 mph, as is the limit now.
“Leases are an option,” Wendel said Thursday. “Investments are an option.”