Charleston Mayor Joe Riley’s nostalgic dream of passenger trains running down a long-abandoned downtown route is just about where it has always been — on a piece of paper far from the tracks.

The city’s proposed 10-year Century V comprehensive plan lays out guidelines for transportation needs, including bike lanes and bus routes. But what could potentially be the largest change for Charlestonians is a commuter rail line running from Summerville to downtown Charleston. Many will note that this vision has been on Mayor Joe Riley’s bucket list for more than two decades.

But thanks to a number of factors, the faint sound of a train whistle can now be heard rolling down those tracks, with Riley in the lead car, readying his conductor’s cap.

There are three different plans that are literally and figuratively on three different tracks: a commuter train, light rail, and high-speed rail. The commuter train would use existing Norfolk Southern tracks to shuttle passengers twice a day during the week.

A light rail proposal would place new tracks along a similar route with trains running throughout the day all week long, benefiting tourists and others not on a work schedule.

Locals on Johns Island and James Island have all but rejected plans for a highway over their rural and suburban neighborhoods. Hungry for alternatives, many have embraced a proposal by environmentalists at the Coastal Conservation League for a light rail system that would focus on where the region should be growing — up the spine of the Charleston peninsula and out along Interstate 26.

And then there’s high-speed rail connecting the Lowcountry with hubs in Florence and Savannah. For the past two years, the federal government has invested billions on improving infrastructure, including laying out high-speed rail routes through major metropolitan areas across the country. Based on a decades-old model, the first route ignored Charleston, but Riley is fighting to get the Holy City on the map.

Charleston’s history with rail travel will either make this a long, painful cautionary tale or the hardest of hard-earned victories. In 1996, the private firm Futrex hoped to bring a small, futuristic elevated tram to shuttle passengers through the region. The firm garnered modest support, with promises of a $1.3 million loan from the City of Charleston and $6.2 million in federal grant money. But the project never got off the ground and was sold off in 2008.

Meanwhile, the broad commuter rail idea has included a number of visions. Some thought it might include trolley service, others envisioned routes running through West Ashley and Monks Corner or over the Cooper River Bridge. Just before the residential market went belly-up, German developers were plotting out an expansive North Charleston suburb surrounding a proposed light-rail station.

Riley says all those abandoned plans are about to produce results. “It’s moving away from, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great to have commuter rail’ to get to a specific request,” he says. “The thing about rail is that you’ve got to have a project to get funding.”

The first train to accept daily passengers would likely be the commuter rail line supported in the city’s Century V plan. While a detailed study is still in development, the plan lays out the argument for passenger rail based on a growing number of residents and visitors to the Charleston area and an inability to build new roads to meet that demand. The plan calls on the city to continue to protect railroad right-of-way and work with North Charleston and Summerville to focus growth along the corridor, an essential part in making a passenger train successful.

Riley says the study, which should be completed later this year, will show there will likely be sufficient passenger use to support the train. Spending on the project would likely exceed a 2006 estimate of $46 million. But Riley believes the project could find state support as well as federal funds.

He considers the commuter train a first step but sees a light-rail system as a natural progression. Urban designers at the Coastal Conservation League, a Charleston-based environmental watchdog, see no reason to wait. Last week, hundreds of Sea Island residents flooded public hearings on the proposed extension of Interstate 526, but several had more to say than the familiar, “Not in my backyard.” They pointed to CCL’s pitch to spend the $420 million already budgeted for the $489 million parkway on the light-rail route along the region’s spine.

Several years ago, local leaders plotted out where they wanted to see growth in the region with Legos. Most of the building blocks ran along I-26, the very route Riley’s been pitching for passenger train traffic. CCL is still trying to get support from Charleston County Council, which would be ultimately responsible for abandoning one transportation vision for another.

The group is hopeful that the message from island residents was loud and clear. But CCL has a pitch of its own: do what works.

“The 526 extension doesn’t address the current traffic problem,” says Kate Parks, a project manager with the League. She notes traffic reduction would be a major factor in securing federal money to cover the $69 million shortfall. On the other hand, the rail plan runs along the I-26 corridor that currently gets cluttered and clogged during rush hour traffic — making it a good fit for federal grant funding.

On a different track, Riley is in Washington this week to lobby the Federal Railroad Administration for $625,000 to study a high-speed train route from Savannah to Florence, with a high-priority stop in Charleston. It’s the first step toward getting Charleston on the national high-speed network proposed last year by the Obama administration.

South Carolina has lagged behind its neighbors in the rail race, and it’s coming back to haunt us. Federal funds are extremely competitive. The most recent round of funding sent federal dollars to Orlando, Miami, Charlotte, and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. In the next round, Georgia has requested $7 million for an environmental study of an Atlanta-to-Charlotte route which just happens to run through the Upstate. It’s one of 77 applications for $8.5 billion in federal funding.

Both high-speed routes currently proposed through South Carolina are essentially pass-through opportunities to connect Charlotte to Atlanta and Raleigh to Savannah, ignoring the S.C. coast — the fastest growing part of the state with millions of visitors every year.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” says Riley, who drafted the federal grant request for the route through Charleston with the endorsement of the state Department of Transportation. “I felt it was my duty to do everything I could to get us on the map.”

Meanwhile, money continues to ride out of Washington. President Barack Obama suggested Congress release another $50 billion for road, bridge, and rail improvements last week. But Riley is worried that Charleston will be left to walk the tracks instead of ride them.

“Eventually, our country will have a high-speed network,” he says. “If we’re not on the network, it’ll pass us by.”

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