Railway remains in contention for Connect Oregon III transportation grant
Despite some uncertainty over the future of its excursion operations, the Wallowa Union Rail Authority is not yet abandoning plans to build a repair and maintenance shop in Elgin.
The railroad, jointly owned by Union and Wallowa counties, remains in the running for a Connect Oregon III grant, though the final award would be for much less money than originally requested.
“We will have to scale it down and re-submit,” said Mark Davidson, who serves both as a Union County Commissioner and as a rail authority board member.
ConnectOregon III is a lottery bond-based initiative providing $100 million to improve Oregon's transportation system through multimodal investments, other than highway.
ConnectOregon I and II projects, 68 total, are in various stages of completion and include investments such as building a new public transit center to house all transportation services in La Grande.
Other local projects funded through ConnectOregon include improvement of the Pendleton Grain Growers storage facility at Alicel, and repair and refurbishing of WURA passenger cars.
This year, WURA, in partnership with Sumpter Valley Machine Works, submitted a $5.1 million grant request to build a facility in Elgin for repair and maintenance of locomotives and other rolling stock.
The original plans also called for construction of a multi-modal transportation hub and park-and-ride lot for excursion train passengers, Community Connection transit bus passengers and bicycle
The proposed project made ConnectOregon’s prioritized list, though a review committee decided to award it only $975,000. The WURA board now must figure out whether it should go ahead with a smaller facility.
“We’ll have to wait and see if the transportation commission adopts the list as presented, then look and see what our project should be and present it back to them,” Davidson said.
The railroad continues to struggle financially, as it has since the two counties bought it in 2002.
The 2010-11 budget is for $827,000, and of that, $552,000 goes to the state for repayment of the loan used to buy the line. The remainder funds personal services, materials and services, and
This year, the excursion schedule was trimmed from 31 runs to 11, and, after a final spring season, the “Fish Train” excursions carrying anglers down the Wallowa River from Minam were scratched from the schedule.
The railroad and the Minam Motel were partners in the fish trains. Davidson said the motel has been notified the trips won’t continue.
“We decided we’d run the fish trains this year because of short notice, but after the books were closed on the season, we determined we couldn’t continue,” Davidson said.
On the plus side, the railroad’s contract to store cars on the line in Wallowa County for Union Pacific continues to bring in money, making it possible to keep up with terms of the loan.
Davidson said WURA took charge of 387 in-bound cars in June, bringing the total stored on the track to about 1,250.
More cars have been brought in, bringing the total to 1,400. The railroad projects it will collect $712,000 from track lease in the current fiscal year.
Income from WURA freight operations has been slight, though the railroad did make some money recently hauling scrap from the now-defunct Wallowa sawmill.
Davidson said he hopes a buyer steps in and utilizes the sawmill site for some other industrial purpose.
“That would be a prime place for an industry. We would hope something would go in that would utilize rail transportation,” he said.
Though the budget is balanced for this year, the board has discussed more changes in railroad operations. Those could include elimination of excursions
“We’ll have to see how the results are at the end of the season,” Davidson said.