By Pat Caldwell
ONTARIO — Malheur County would get a major new rail facility to ship local products under a transportation package under debate at the Oregon Legislature.
The legislation includes $26 million for what is often referred to as a trans load railway facility, seen as critical to keeping agricultural producers competitive.
At such a depot, farm products are trucked in and then loaded onto special trains that can make a run to the east coast in a matter of days. Each train holds several hundred truckloads of goods, lowering freight costs and allowing faster delivery.
Local and state officials have been working hard to locate such a depot in Malheur County. No site has been selected, but Nyssa has been considered as one possible host.
But the money is far from a certainty. The state Department of Transportation listed the project as one that would be funded through an $8 billion transportation packaged announced last week by legislators.
One of the elements of that package are projects designed to more efficiently move freight in the state.
That is where the local rail facility fits in. Securing funds for just such a venture was a key goal for state Rep. Cliff Bentz, who is the co-vice chair of the Transportation Preservation and Modernization Committee. That group worked with legislators from both parties and both chambers to design the transportation plan.
“The idea is we want to move freight more efficiently in and out of Oregon and that has been a goal that I helped establish as one of the major foundational elements of the transportation package,” said Bentz.
There is a similar plant in Wallula, Wash., that includes a two-mile loop track and refrigerated warehouses.
Bentz earmarked $26 million in the transportation package proposal for the local rail project.
“I recognized with all of my work with the onion industry and the potatoes industry and EP Minerals that all of them had the same compliant: They can’t get trucks to come to our area because there is nothing to haul in. There is lots to haul out,” said Bentz.
EP Minerals is an area firm that mines diatomaceous earth for filters, pharmaceuticals and purification of wastewater.
Bentz said the money is front-loaded into the transportation package but it isn’t guaranteed.
“Do we have the money for it? Not yet. We are still looking for funding. Is it likely to be funded? It is not final. Much can happen to derail the entire package. It is definitely still in the serious maybe status,” said Bentz.
The transportation recommendations released last week are seen as a starting point for discussion, Bentz said.
Ontario Mayor Ron Verini said a rail facility would be a game-changer for the local economy.
“If we can manage a trans load facility it would probably be one of the biggest wins for our community,” he said.
Verini said the location of such a facility is irrelevant as long as it is in Malheur County.
“It doesn’t make any difference which community – Vale, Nyssa, Ontario – ends up with the facility because it is so important for our transportation complex, especially our ag industry in general. It would just be a huge win for us,” he said.
Kit Kamo, the director of the Snake River Economic Development Alliance, agreed with Verini regarding the impact a transload facility could have locally.
“It makes a huge difference to our value-added agriculture products to get to the marketplace in a timely manner. But it also opens the door to getting products in and out of our area better,” Kamo said.
Another big plus, said Kamo, would be the residual effect such a facility would have.
“We have a lot of other companies in our region that could actually benefit from this type of investment. And it would help our neighboring counties, not just Malheur County,” said Kamo.
Paul Skeen, the president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association, said a rail facility would drastically cut costs for many producers.
“Freight is cheaper for Peru to send a load of onions to the east coast than it is from here to the east coast. This rail deal is huge. We need it in the worst way because the freight is costing more than what the onions are worth,” said Skeen.
Skeen said the fact that the rail proposal is in the transportation package is important.
“The state has recognized our plight and they are doing something about it,” said Skeen.