May 28, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

After hearing from a number of people who live in the Elgin area, the Union County commissioners Tuesday decided to become full partners in a railroad purchase.

About eight people, most of them from the north end of Union County, urged the commissioners to become involved in decision-making about the Idaho Northern and Pacific Railroad line that runs from Elgin to Joseph.

The residents spoke during a county public hearing called to approve an ordinance and an intergovernmental agreement with Wallowa County. The two counties have been negotiating in secret for about a year to buy the line from Idaho Northern. Wallowa County is expected to sign an earnest money agreement with the railroad by 5 p.m. Friday using funds guaranteed by the state.

Union County had the option of taking a low-risk position in the railroad deal, having no role in the management or operation of the line, which runs within the county outside of Elgin. The state, which has said it will guarantee $7 million toward the purchase and operation of the line, requires that both Union and Wallowa counties sign agreements creating an authority to receive grants and loans.

Commissioner Steve McClure, who has coordinated Union County's role in the railroad purchase, said that a case for a profitable railroad business "is difficult to make," and the importance of the purchase lies partly in retaining the right-of-way through Wallowa County.

He said, however, that the counties are urging Oregon's representatives in Congress to push for federal dollars to support the line.

Commissioner John Howard said he is concerned about the future of the railroad and the easement under it if the counties don't buy.

"It's likely that the River Conservancy or another environmental groups will buy the line" if the counties back out of the deal, he said.

The state has verbally guaranteed to back the railroad purchase with $7 million, $2 million of that in the form of a grant approved by the 2001 Legislature.

The feasibility study has not been made public, and several in Tuesday's audience urged the commissioners to provide the information in the study to the public.

Beverly Lousignont of La Grande asked the county to create a subcommittee of independent business owners to look at the proposals.

"What you've done has not been public," she said. "Before you sign on behalf of the county residents, we need a meeting to talk among ourselves. We need to know our business partners."

But Commissioner Colleen MacLeod said the purchase of the railroad has been studied for the past couple of years. She said the adjacent landowners will be better served if the counties own and operate the rail line.

"The accessibility issue (for adjacent landowners) has kept me at the table," MacLeod said.