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COUNTIES EYE FULL RAIL LINE
By Gary Fletcher
Observer Staff Writer
ENTERPRISE A ray of hope may shine through a window of opportunity in the effort to resurrect the Joseph railroad, idle some five years.
The owner has rejected all offers for the line, but the off-and-on-again negotiations have now broadened in scope.
Union and Wallowa counties $3 million offer to buy the Idaho Northern and Pacific Railroad from Elgin to Joseph was rejected by the parent company Rio Grande Pacific of Ft. Worth, Texas.
In a counteroffer, Richard Bertel, the railroads CEO, dropped the price from the $7.2 million appraised value to $5.75 million. His counter was then rejected by the other side.
The counties, in return, offered $8.5 million to buy all 84 miles of the line from Joseph to La Grande, where it connects to the Union Pacific Railroad, Wallowa County Planner Bill Oliver said.
Bertel rejected that offer. Then he e-mailed negotiator Gary Hunter that his company would now consider selling the line all the way to La Grande.
A group hopes to have another offer with money behind it before Thanksgiving to take advantage of the window of opportunity that could close by mid-December.
To identify a short list of agencies with resources available to fund the purchase, Oliver and a few representatives from both counties met Friday morning with state and federal agency representatives who were in Enterprise for the Oregon Rural Development Council meeting.
It has been eight years since the development council had been to Joseph, Enterprise, Lostine and Wallowa. The state council tries to connect towns with state, federal and private funding sources.
At the meeting, the council heard that the possible window of opportunity for a railroad purchase refers to a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Jones on Sept. 14 to postpone a hearing until Dec. 14. That hearing is on Rio Grande Pacifics request for an injunction against Wallowa County. The county required a permit in June before Klamert Salvage Company, of Silesis, Mont., could pull up the the rails from Joseph to Elgin.
One reason the Portland judge issued a stay, was to await the outcome of a yet-to-be-scheduled U.S.
Surface Transportation Board ruling on a petition from the Oregon Department of Transportations Rail Division.
The states July 27 petition seeks to overturn the federal boards 1997 ruling to allow abandonment of the line.
Looking for further hope on the horizon, Oliver pointed to the federal economic stimulus package that includes proposed bills to benefit short-line railroads.
Support in Congress for rail projects has increased since the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent disruption of airline travel.
Oregons congressional delegation is continuing its effort to bring back the Amtrak Pioneer between Portland and Boise.
If that happens, it would be even more effective to have a line connecting all the way to La Grande, officials said.