September 03, 2001 11:00 pm

Union and Wallowa counties commissioners made a good decision last week when they voted to hire a negotiator to talk to Rio Grande Pacific Railroad, owner of Idaho Northern & Pacific, about the possible purchase of the line that runs from Elgin to Joseph. Losing that rail corridor would be a terrible mistake.

Idaho Northern has sold the tracks for salvage and is anxious to proceed because no other good-faith offers have been presented. And it appears the railroad is holding firm to its $7 million asking price an amount that borders on ridiculous. The Oregon Legislature approved $2 million in lottery funds to help buy the railroad, but that amount is slightly less than the salvage company bid for the tracks. Somehow, someway, the counties are going to have to exceed the salvage companys bid, but $7 million is out of the question.

The counties could benefit from a private partner. But even with the prospect of some freight revenue from Wallowa counties two lumber mills, its apparent the line wouldnt generate much income very fast. Still, the potential exists for some revenue. And if an excursion train could be thrown in the mix, a little more revenue might someday be available.

As we all know, you cant build a railroad overnight. But with the right mix of partners and opportunity, you can at least start building a railroad. The counties should find out if Idaho Northern might consider being a partner if the counties could come up with, say, a $2.5 million investment. And if not, would Idaho Northern consider giving the counties more time to seek out potential investors?

Idaho Northern abandoned service on the Elgin-to-Joseph portion of the line five years ago. But it wasnt until the railroad had awarded a bid for salvage that everyone realized the tracks days were numbered and efforts to save the line began in earnest. As ridiculous as the railroads asking price for the line is, you cant fault it for growing frustrated over the amount of time it has taken to get local interests geared up to find a way to save the line.

Finding a solution wont be easy. Union County Commissioner Steve McClure is right in saying the counties cannot look to taxpayers for the money. But the counties do need to proceed with trying to find a way to save the line.

Hiring a negotiator is a good first step, even if it took about five years too long to get to that point. We can only hope that Idaho Northern will be willing to talk.

The counties must find a way to spare the line even if it means condemnation as a last result. Once a rail line is gone, its gone forever. Future generations surely would appreciate todays generation doing all it can to save the line.