Leaders in Columbus County and neighboring Horry County, S.C., have approved $3.6 million in local grants that might lead to the restart of a short-line railroad that has been idle for three years.
With an unidentified buyer said to be considering a $13.6 million deal to buy the Carolina Southern Railway, the Columbus County Board of Commissioners and the Horry County Council last week approved payments of $1.8 million apiece that would go to the new owner. A Horry official said the trains could start moving again as soon as next spring.
The 95-mile railroad, based in Conway, S.C., halted operations in 2011 after the owner said he couldn’t afford $2 million in needed bridge safety repairs. Manufacturers in Columbus and Horry counties have switched to more expensive trucking operations to handle their freight needs since then. Community leaders have sought state and federal aid to make the repairs or to take over the railroad.
North Carolina agreed this summer to work with South Carolina to find a solution, but Gov. Pat McCrory said that public acquisition of the troubled railroad “should be the last resort.”
The line runs north from Conway into North Carolina to Tabor City, Chadbourn and Whiteville in Columbus County. Then it turns back toward South Carolina, crossing the border again at Fair Bluff to end in Mullins, S.C., where it links to a CSX track that is Columbus County’s freight connection to the rest of the world.
Columbus officials say they hope that the resumption of rail service would entice Georgia-Pacific to reopen a plant that was closed during the recession in 2008 and once employed more than 400 people.
“We’re hoping and praying that’s going to happen,” Edwin Russ of Lake Waccamaw, chairman of the Columbus commissioners, said Friday. “Because we need jobs in our county. We are hurting bad.”