November 03, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Error in judgment or smart decision?

Questions about the wisdom of purchasing a short-line railroad have swirled throughout Union and Wallowa counties since the two public entities began negotiations with Idaho Northern & Pacific more than a year ago.

Those closest to the decision believe the purchase was necessary to save the rails and the right of way under them — the infrastructure.

Others, some who have worked for railroad companies, worry that the high cost of running a railroad may affect the counties' ability to deliver basic services, such as roads and law enforcement, or drive the counties into bankruptcy.

The Union County commissioners have said they will not use general fund money — raised through property taxes — to support the railroad in any way. Commissioner Steve McClure, the commissioners' liaison to the railroad, has said he fears the infrastructure — the rails and the property owned by the line — would not have been preserved had the counties not agreed to buy the line.

"We know you can't make a good business case, but it's vital to maintain that infrastructure," McClure said. "Once it's gone, it's gone."

Leaders in Wallowa County — and in Elgin — have been looking for a way to save the railroad for several years, but neither Wallowa County nor the city of Elgin has sufficient value to receive a loan.

For a long time, Elgin leaders, including City Administrator Joe Garlitz, have said they believe an opportunity for rail excursions will encourage more tourists to visit the north end of the Grande Ronde Valley, and a number of Wallowa County people, including Enterprise Mayor Susan Roberts, have said a viable railroad operation would help the county's economy.

Wallowa County Commission Chairman Mike Hayward said several months ago, "People keep asking, ‘Why don't you do something about the railroad?' "

The two counties did something. They asked the 2001 Legislature for $2 million to help buy the line and the state Economic and Community Development Department for another $4.5 million in loans to help close the deal. Both agreed.

"I wouldn't have moved forward to buy the railroad without the state support," McClure said.

A former railroad railmaster, George Altenburg of Cove, believes the potential costs of operation and maintenance of the railroad could be disastrous for both counties.

"If there is any money to be made, do you think Union Pacific would have sold it?" Altenburg said.

Some opponents, including Altenburg, have said the public money would be better spent on schools or law enforcement, but the money that will go to the railroad purchase comes from lottery funds earmarked for economic development.

"We've taken some criticism for buying this railroad," McClure said recently, "but can you imagine how much more criticism we'd get if we let it go?"