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Greenville Business Magazine

High-Speed Rail Inches Forward

Jul 05, 2018 11:28AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By John McCurry

Leon Stavrinakis hopes persistence will eventually pay off when it comes to advancing South Carolina’s prospects for some type of high-speed rail. The Charleston attorney and member of the S.C. House of Representatives has introduced a bill for three consecutive sessions that would create a state High Speed Rail System Commission. He believes there is a need for such a system in the state. 

“We are behind where we need to be without questions. There has been a level of increased interest among fellow legislators, but still not the kind of quantity and leadership support we need. Because of the costs involved, we need a great deal of support for it, and we also need for multiple states and the federal government to work together.”

Stavrinakis believes the Charleston region’s recent industrial growth helps make the case for the Lowcountry to be included in any HSR plan. He asserts that South Carolina’s relative compact geography is another reason HSR can succeed. The cost of connecting the state’s main economic centers would be a relative bargain compared to larger states. 

“I-26 is the economic spine of South Carolina, and we could connect the three main cities [Greenville, Columbia, and Charleston] easily,” he says. “Rock Hill is a fast-growing area, which could be connected, too, with a line from Charlotte to Columbia. We can do it for a cost most states would only be able to dream of doing because of the geography of the state and the proximity of our main cities.”

If and when Stavrinakis’ proposed nine-member commission is created, it would work in conjunction with efforts under way for the Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor. That includes the Passenger Rail Corridor Investment Plan (PRCIP), a study funded by the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) to assess the feasibility of high speed rail between Atlanta and Charlotte.  The Georgia DOT and the FRA are leading the effort with input from their counterparts in the Carolinas. About two years ago, GDOT released three possible routes (see map) that run across the Upstate.

Kaycee Mertz, rail planning manager for GDOT, says her organization is working with the Federal Rail Administration to complete the Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). For the past year, GDOT has been working on the document to make it ready for public viewing. The next step, which could happen by the end of the year, will be to conduct a second round of public meetings. Those meetings, like the first set, will likely be held at locations in both Carolinas and Georgia.

Douglas Frate, director of intermodal and freight programs for the SCDOT, says whatever plan emerges will likely be incremental. He says the SCDOT is interested from a multi-modal perspective, not just traditional roads and bridges. Projected growth in population, economic development, and tourism will require transportation solutions, he says, and the state must prepare to accommodate that growth.

“First, we have to determine which projects are most feasible,” Frate says. “From a funding perspective, we will have to have the federal government at the table, and that’s one of the reasons we are working with the Federal Railroad Administration.” 

Mixed Feelings In Upstate
Jason Zacher, senior vice president, business advocacy at the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, says his opinion on HSR swings back and forth. He says a line through the Upstate would enhance the I-85 corridor’s prowess as an economic engine, with a spur line to Charleston being critical. However, if South Carolina has to put significant tax dollars behind it, he doesn’t see it happening. 

“It’s the kind of thing we definitely would support, but asking the General Assembly to come up with billions of dollars is a major ask. The business community needs to make sure we put pressure on to make sure we are on the leading edge of this. We certainly don’t want it to bypass us.”

Dave Edwards, president and CEO at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, is another regional official with questions about HSR.  

“When you look at the population density, there might be a case between Charlotte and Atlanta, but I don’t think anyone has proved to me what the ridership would be,” he says. “If you look at the cost of any high-speed rail system, and the return from the fare box, which usually averages less than 15 percent of the cost, you have to ask, where are the dollars going to come from to make it financially feasible? That usually means it’s coming from taxpayers. I don’t think there is a rail system in the country that is self-sustaining. They all have to be subsidized in order to operate. Is that a good business model? I would say no, but I also recognize there is only so much concrete to put on the ground for automobiles. The question is, will people be willing to utilize a system that is put into place?”

Dimitris Rizos, a University of South Carolina associate professor in civil engineering, is director and founding member of the Advanced Railroad Technology Group, which was established at USC in 2011 to promote the railroad industry, including high-speed rail in South Carolina and the U.S. He says there is a will to have HSR in South Carolina, but the big question is how would it be funded? There is a need to connect Greenville, Columbia, Charleston, and Charlotte, he believes.

“I see the need for it, but it is also a matter of educating people to use the service,” Rizos says. “There is a need to connect the larger population centers with high-speed rail service. The population density may be borderline, but planning for the future, this is the right move.”

There are some factors that could give speed to rail development, Rizos believes. If gas prices continue to rise, there will be more consideration of public transportation. Likewise, if road traffic becomes unmanageable, and public transportation is deemed to be an option, the move to high-speed rail could accelerate. 

Stavrinakis, perhaps the legislative version of the little engine that could, plans to introduce his bill for the fourth time in January, if he is reelected in November. 

“Establishing a commission is the first step. We don’t have one, but a lot of our sister states do.”

Possible Benefits of High-Speed Rail:

Job Creation
Building high-speed rail will create hundreds of thousands of jobs.  Every $1 billion in investment creates 24,000 jobs. These are highly skilled jobs that will revitalize the domestic rail industries supplying transportation products and services. 

Increased Economic Activity
Every $1 invested creates $4 in economic benefits. Upgrading passenger operations on newly revitalized tracks, bridges and rights of way is spurring business productivity along corridors.  The rail services will connect America’s economically vital mega-regions and help keep them mobile, productive, efficient, and internationally competitive. 

Reduced Congestion and Boosted Productivity 
Congestion on our nation’s roads costs $140 billion in lost time and productivity.  The U.S. population is projected to grow by another 100 million people in the next 40 years. The population growth is creating mega-regions that will not prosper unless they can be freed from the stranglehold of highway and airport congestion. 

Reduced the Nation’s Dependence on Foreign Oil  
Implementing high-speed rail will keep billions of dollars in the U.S. economy by decreasing the amount of oil that the nation consumes. According to the International Association of Railways (UIC), high-speed rail is eight times more energy efficient than airplanes and four times more efficient than automobile use. It will also decrease greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality.   

Expanded Travel Choices and Improved Mobility
High-speed rail can deliver people from one downtown to another as fast as or faster than air travel.  The addition of HSR as an integrated part of America’s transportation system will help airports work better and highways work better. It will also expand options for citizens in rural and small urban communities with increased transfer points and feeder services that connect with new HSR corridors.

Current High-Speed Rail Projects:

The California High Speed Rail Authority began construction in 2015 on a project that will connect San Francisco to the Los Angeles area by 2020. The project, funded by federal, state, local, and private funds, has experienced cost overruns with estimates now ranging from $77 billion to $98 billion. The line will eventually extend to Sacramento and San Diego. 

Railroad developer Texas Central is overseeing a high-speed line between North Texas and Houston. Commonly referred to as the Texas Bullet Train, the project will connect Dallas and Houston in less than 90 minutes at speeds up to 200 mph. The line, still in the planning stage, is being funded privately, with reported estimates placing the cost at between $15 billion and $18 billion. Global engineering firm Bechtel was named project manager in May. Construction may begin in 2019.

Brightline, a privately funded higher-speed rail line, opened for passenger service between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach in January.  It will eventually have a top speed of 125 mph and plans call for it to eventually extend from Miami to Orlando with an average speed of 80 mph. The cost estimate for the first phase is $3 billion.