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Rail line's woes and foes

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

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COOS BAY After unexpectedly shutting down traffic on a rail line between Eugene and Coos Bay this fall, the Boca Raton, Fla., company RailAmerica wants to form a public and private partnership to fund as much as $30 million in repairs to three of the line’s 125-year-old tunnels — a suggestion that Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) slammed as an attempt to “extort” millions from the Port of Coos Bay and Oregon taxpayers.

The 126-mile Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad is a critical link for shippers such as Georgia-Pacific, Roseburg Forest Products and Reedsport’s American Bridge. According to estimates from the Port of Coos Bay, the line carries about 7,500 cars a year. After RailAmerica stopped traffic on Sept. 21 with no warning, Georgia-Pacific laid off 120 workers from its Coos Bay sawmill, and the Port of Coos Bay filed a $15 million lawsuit against the rail company for not giving the port enough notice of the closure.

State senators and representatives blasted company officials, going so far as to accuse RailAmerica of trying to pressure the state to fund the repairs. DeFazio held meetings with the U.S. transportation secretary and the director of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

Company CEO John Giles is part of an investment group that bought RailAmerica, which owns 43 short-line railroads around the nation, last February. A few months before he took over, RailAmerica had spent $2 million in repair work on a single tunnel on the Coos Bay line. “It’s important for everyone to know that this problem didn’t pop up [this year]. The history is that there have been chronic problems,” he says.

The latest inspection report from RailAmerica’s engineering firm, which is dated July 16, strongly suggests the company make immediate repairs in three tunnels where support timbers — some of which are an estimated 95 years old — are rotten and rocks are falling. Giles says that report, which was reviewed by the company’s own engineer for several months after it was generated, was the impetus for the sudden closure. A subsequent inspection performed by the FRA in October validated RailAmerica’s findings, reporting that, “All three tunnels need immmediate repairs to permit the safe resumption of railroad operations.”


Marin Callery, the director of freight mobility at the port of Coos Bay, says no one is questioning that the rail line needs work. The port’s immediate concern, he says, is that shippers have a way to move their freight. DeFazio’s office is looking at the long-term economic impact; chief of staff Penny Dodge says there are worries the company may be trying to abandon the railroad.

Because there are multiple stakeholders, Giles says, there should be shared fiscal responsibility for its repair. “If you want us to open tunnels, we’ll put up our hand and offer our pro rata share, but you have to be prepared to step forward, state of Oregon,” he says. “You have to be willing to step forward, shippers. You have to be willing to step forward, Coos Bay.”     

ABRAHAM HYATT


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