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COUNTY NAMES RAIL DIRECTORS
By Alice Perry Linker
Observer Staff Writer
Although Marc Stauffer's work is just beginning, he's put in a lot of time to get to the starting gate.
The Elgin city councilor has spent hours researching and discussing railroad operations. Soon he'll get a chance to put some of his ideas on the table.
Stauffer, along with Union County resident Gene Hardy and Union County Commissioner Steve McClure, have been appointed to a two-county nine-member railroad authority.
Union and Wallowa counties have purchased the Idaho Northern and Pacific Railroad branch line from Elgin to Joseph. Idaho Northern began running a freight train from Elgin to Wallowa Monday and may later extend the operation to Joseph. After one year, the railroad company plans to turn operations over to the counties.
At that time, the authority must be prepared to make decisions as to whether the counties will manage the rail line or contract with a railroad operator.
"A lot of different ideas have come forward since we began this," Stauffer said. "Obviously we have the freight. We want to offer quality freight service for those who want to ship, whether it's wood products or farm-related products."
There has been interest expressed in shipping grain from Wallowa County by rail, he said.
Stauffer's research and other work has been with the "blessing of the (Elgin) city council," he said. "The saving of this line was on the list of the city's goals."
Talk throughout both counties has involved the operation of an excursion line, and Stauffer said he and others have studied the passenger excursion trains at Hood River, in New Mexico and in Lewistown, Mont.
"They've all been turning a profit," he said. "Most are three- or four-hour excursions. Each one does something a little different."
The railroad authority is expected to have its first meeting by the end of August, Commissioner McClure said. Union County must appoint one more member, and Wallowa County is expected to appoint its members later this month. The two counties will make one joint appointment.
McClure agrees with Stauffer that the authority has its work cut out for it. But he said there are other counties that run railroads, and he hopes to draw on their experience.
"I don't see any reason to reinvent the wheel," he said. "I'd like to invite people who have done this such as Lake County to talk to us."
The $6.5-million cost of the railroad was supported by a $2 million grant from the Oregon Legislature and a $4.5-million loan from the state Economic Development Department. The counties have been seeking federal funds to help repay the state loan.
"We need federal participation," McClure said. "It will be very hard to service that debt without it."