Railroad upgrades in downtown Rock Hill to start in September

Construction will begin later this year on a project aimed at alleviating several railroad problems near downtown Rock Hill, including the amount of time stopped trains block downtown streets and the noise caused by railroad crossing warnings and train horns.

After years – decades even – of Norfolk Southern Railroad trains blocking downtown streets daily and after the original railroad improvement plan was rejected by Rock Hill City Council in 2009, city leaders say the nearly $8 million project will get underway in September.

The project is being paid for by the railroad and a federal grant.

The latest version of the plan – approved by City Council in 2011 – will close one railroad crossing at Mill Street in the Aragon Mill neighborhood, near downtown. A replacement crossing will be built nearby, at Poe and Quantz streets.

A related “sidetrack” project will give locomotives more room to transfer rail cars, reducing the frequency and time of trains blocking downtown at Main and White streets.

Another railroad track crossing at Community Street – serving the Aragon Mill and Industrial Mill residential neighborhoods – will be reconfigured. Poplar Street, which connects to Community and Curtis streets, will be widened and changed to a dead-end residential road.

Rock Hill officials say the Community Street crossing is unsafe. Some residents contend the crossing is fine. Others have said the convergence of several neighborhood roads at the intersection poses a hazard. The intersection does not have a traffic signal and the railroad crossing does not have gates.

Under the plan for railroad changes, new gates will be installed at the Community Street crossing to ensure drivers stop for moving trains. By adding the gates and reconfiguring the road, city officials say trains will be allowed to make less noise when passing through the neighborhood.

The change will create what the railroad company calls a “quiet zone,” reducing the bells, blows and whistles heard at varying times of the day in residential areas near downtown Rock Hill.

Tracye Donaldson, who lives near the railroad tracks and railroad yard, said she’s excited about the changes and anticipates significant improvements for her neighborhood. Donaldson is president of the Aragon Mill Neighborhood Association. The current improvement plan was written by a local committee called the Railroad Study Group, which included neighborhood and local business representatives as well as city and railroad company officials.

Donaldson says the current plan for railroad changes is much better than the proposal floated nearly six years ago.

Then, opponents of the plan criticized the suggested closing of the Community Street crossing, which intersects with Poplar, Curtis and Church streets.

The original railroad plan called for only one railroad crossing for the neighborhood – a new path over the tracks located at Poe and Quantz streets. At the time, many residents said one crossing wasn’t adequate for traffic and would significantly inconvenience drivers if a train blocked the only crossing available.

Some residents also said then that the city’s plans for improving the railroad seemed more focused on helping downtown businesses. They contended the changes simply moved the train blockage problem further down the tracks into their neighborhood.

Residents blocked in or out

Earlier this month, during a neighborhood meeting about the plan, some residents said they are still not convinced the changes will be a “win-win” for downtown and their neighborhoods. Those residents say they’ll be inconvenienced by years of project construction with little results on the way for their neighborhood.

The uncertainty is understandable, Donaldson said, but she’s convinced the plan will bring positive change for residents near the tracks.

Currently, the neighborhood’s two crossings at Mill and Community streets are sometimes blocked by trains at the same time. When the Mill Street crossing is closed, the new crossing at Poe and Quantz streets will befartheraway from the railroad yard and Community Street – a move that should keep residents from being blocked entirely for a long period of time.

When both crossings are blocked, Donaldson said, she has to drive from Dave Lyle Boulevard to Charlotte Avenue to Edgemont Street – a five- to 10-minute detour – to get around the train and reach her home. Other residents have said they also are forced to find alternative routes from Dave Lyle Boulevard when trains are stopped.

Part of a solution to this problem includes the addition of a railroad “sidetrack” that will reduce the time stopped trains block crossings. Officials project that an extra track near the railroad yard will shave about 20 minutes off the time that trains block local streets.

The sidetrack addition will allow trains to more efficiently unhook cars that stay in Rock Hill at the railroad yard and pick up others before heading north, away from downtown. The extra track gives the locomotives more space for changing cars.

Construction of the sidetrack will take the longest time. Officials say the sidetrack project will get underway in the summer of 2016 and will take nearly 18 months to complete.

The new crossing at Poe and Quantz streets should be finished by September 2016. Once the new crossing is complete, crews will start road work at the Community Street crossing. The reconfigured Community Street crossing is expected to be open by September 2017.

Other, smaller pieces of the plan include planting some “buffer” landscaping in the nearby neighborhood beside the railroad yard and track. City officials said the area will also see some stormwater drainage system improvements.

Right-of-way needs

Soon, some residents will have property appraised that the city intends to buy as right-of-way land needed for the various railroad changes. Earlier this month at the neighborhood meeting, some residents expressed concern about their land being needed for the project.

Tom Roper, a local attorney and the chair of the ad hoc Railroad Study Group, told residents reluctance to sell right-of-way land wouldn’t stop the project. Roper is also chair of the Rock Hill Planning Commission, a volunteer group that helps makes recommendations to City Council about zoning and development around the city.

Construction of the railroad improvements “can go forward with the project, even if there’s litigation over the value,” Roper said.

South Carolina law gives cities the power to take or “condemn” private property if it is needed for public purposes. Federal laws mandate that Rock Hill must provide “just compensation” as payment to landowners when condemning their property.

If the landowner disagrees with the municipality’s price for the land, the government can sue the landowner through a condemnation lawsuit. At the beginning of the lawsuit, the municipality can deposit with the local clerk of court office its original offer and take possession of the right-of-way land.

The right-of-way acquisition phase of the railroad project has not yet begun in the Aragon Mill and Industrial Mill neighborhood. The first step involves a land appraiser approaching affected landowners.

City officials say they expect to need small portions of right-of-way land from some residents, not full parcels which would require relocation of homes.