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S.C. doubles funding for high-speed rail

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The South Carolina Transportation Commission almost doubled its financial commitment to high-speed passenger rail development on Thursday, but the state remains far behind North Carolina and Virginia, the Greenville News reported.

South Carolina's lines would be linked to those states.

On the recommendation of Commissioner Howell Clyborne of Greenville, the commission added $2 million to the $2.6 million already budgeted for rail development.

"Not only will this increased effort help meet the challenges presented by the new air quality standards, but it will help us deliver the transportation choices that South Carolina citizens are asking for," Clyborne said.

The $2 million, which would be drawn from additional federal funds that become available, would be used for rail-related activities such as planning, rights-of-way acquisition and corridor improvements, Clyborne said.

In a presentation to the Transportation Commission, state Rail Coordinator Bill McIlwain said that North Carolina's commitment of $61 million and 66 employees makes that state's passenger rail development the "premier" program in the nation. North Carolina operates passenger rail service between Charlotte and Rocky Mount.

The Associated Press reported earlier this month that the federal government has approved preliminary plans jointly submitted by North Carolina and Virginia for a high-speed rail corridor running from Washington, D.C., through Richmond, Va., to Charlotte. Those states can now begin engineering and environmental studies necessary to draw half of the $3 billion cost from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

A study has shown that the Virginia-North Carolina high-speed rail link is the only one of five designated by the U.S. DOT as feasible routes that might pay its operating costs from passenger fares.

The route is expected to allow trains to average 85-90 miles per hour, with top speeds as high as 110 miles per hour, rather than the current 45-mph average for passenger trains in the region.

Such speeds would allow trains to compete with airlines and cars on trips of 300 miles or less, studies have shown.

Virginia, which has established a rail and mass transit division separate from its highway department, plans to sell $67.3 million in bonds to help finance the new high-speed rail corridor, McIlwain said.

Clyborne and other South Carolina leaders hope to see high-speed trains link up with the North Carolina-Virginia corridor in Charlotte and continue through Columbia and Greenville, with lines continuing to Jacksonville, Florida, Atlanta, Ga. and Birmingham, Al.

Even with the additional money, South Carolina's funding for passenger rail service remains the lowest in the region, behind $5.1 million in Georgia, $9.1 million in Tennessee, $53.9 million in Alabama, $61 million in North Carolina and $86 million in Virginia.

"We're low on that totem pole," joked Commissioner Bayles Mack of Fort Mill.

"I don't believe we're even on the totem pole," shot back Clyborne.

"North Carolina has definitely put the hammer down. Air quality is already a major issue that could stifle future economic growth in the Upstate," Clyborne said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the Piedmont's industrial corridor on a watch list of regions that could come under industrial development restrictions if air quality continues to worsen.

"If we end up in non-attainment status, the EPA is going to be looking for ways we intend to deal with that. Rail is one way to deal with the problem," he said.

Friday, November 22, 2002

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