May 01, 2002 11:00 pm

Purchasing the rail line between Joseph and Elgin has been a long shot ever since Wallowa County found out that Idaho Northern & Pacific had sold the rails for salvage. The effort to save the line has been up and down, off and on for several months, at times looking like a deal was not possible. But Wallowa County is on the verge of saving the line and putting it back into operation — at a cost of $6.5 million. It's still a long shot, but it's one worth pursuing if the county can show that it pencils out.

The $6.5 million price tag includes about 65 miles of track, including sidings, 766 acres of right of way, 40 bridges, two locomotives and several freight and passenger cars. The county has a commitment from Idaho Northern that it would run a freight train from Elgin to Wallowa for one year. The rails are in fair to good shape and some maintenance is needed in order to reopen the line, a rail inspector told the county.

In two hearings over the past two weeks county residents have reserved judgment on the purchase pending more details on a business plan for the railway. Residents seem supportive of saving the line and going ahead with the purchase provided if it can be shown that it makes financial sense. Wallowa Forest Products is a potential freight customer and Joseph Timber might be if new investors can be found and the mill is reopened. Too, there's the potential at some point in the future of running excursion and/or dinner trains from Elgin to Joseph.

The whole concept is predicated on a lot of "ifs'' at this point. And $6.5 million is a lot of money. The Oregon Legislature allocated $2 million for the purchase. Idaho Northern & Pacific has agreed to take a promissory note for the remaining $4.5 million, secured by the assets of the line. Getting the deal to pencil might be difficult, but figuring out if it can continues to be worth the effort. Wallowa County needs a rail link to the rest of the world. What might seem like a miniscule market today might not be in another 10, 20 or 50 years.

The rail line has been closed since 1994. Idaho Northern & Pacific has been on the verge of ripping out the tracks, which would make reestablishment of the line almost impossible. Giving up on a chance to save the line would be irresponsible.

If Wallowa County can develop a business plan that proves the rail line has realistic potential and won't be a burden to taxpayers, it should move ahead with the purchase. The line is too important to let slip away if there's a chance of saving it at a reasonable cost.


What do Wallowa County residents think about the county's plan to buy the rail line? The Observer is encouraging Wallowa County residents and other readers to write in and share their thoughts on this page.

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