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Rail problems east, south have few answers, many obstacles

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

STATEWIDE Rural rail lines in Oregon are the best hope some counties have to support industry, either what little forest products manufacturing that remains, or the potential for something greater in the future. But while rural Oregonians have convincing arguments for a need for rail, there are few answers as to how to make it happen.

On the eastern side of the state, there’s a local push to restore passenger service between Portland and Baker City in the hopes of drumming up tourism. Washington D.C.-based Amtrak is conducting a viability study. The biggest stumbling block, however, is out of Oregon and Amtrak’s reach: Increasing national freight traffic means the line’s owner, Union Pacific, has little capacity for passenger trains.

“There are so many variables,” says Amtrak spokesperson Vernae Graham when asked about the decision to restore service. “You have to see what makes good business sense.”

December 2007’s massive storm decimated the Port of Tillamook Bay railroad. Repairs are estimated between $30 million and $50 million. Port officials and members of the governor’s office and ODOT have failed to come up with even a fraction of that money, and are losing out on the possibility of receiving matching funds from FEMA. Should the line remain unrepaired, Oregon will lose its only rail link from the coast to the Portland Metro area.

Further south in Coos Bay, another saga looks more hopeful. Government officials spent the first week of the session frantically finding ways to come up with $16.6 million to buy the damaged line that runs between the coast and Eugene. In February, the state approved $12.6 million in bridge loans that will enable the Port of Coos Bay to purchase the rail line that was shut down by Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad.

With a viable rail line, the Port of Coos Bay is likely to become some kind of container shipping port. That puts Oregon in a competitive position with the rest of the Pacific Rim. And it turns rail from a rural issue to an international one.

“What do we as state want to do with [rail]?” asks State Rep. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay. “If we want to be a player, what kind of infrastructure do we need?”


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