August 27, 2001 11:00 pm
FATE UNKNOWN: The future of the Elgin-Joseph rail line is still uncertain. (File photo).
FATE UNKNOWN: The future of the Elgin-Joseph rail line is still uncertain. (File photo).

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

ELGIN Union and Wallowa counties will join forces and negotiate to buy a rail line that runs from Elgin through Wallowa County.

The two county commissions, meeting in executive or closed session Monday, voted to pay a negotiator up to $5,000 to try to reach an agreement with Rio Grande Pacific Railroad. The Texas corporation is the parent company of Idaho Northern and Pacific Railroad, owner of the line that runs from La Grande to Joseph.

The counties have approved hiring Gary Hunter of Railroad Industries Inc. of Reno, Nev., to conduct the negotiations. Hunter is the author of a rail line purchase feasibility study, ordered by Wallowa County earlier. The study, which has not been made public, was paid for with a $9,100 matching grant from the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department.

Idaho Northern is operating a line from La Grande to Elgin, but it stopped operations to Wallowa County in 1994, shortly after buying the line from Union Pacific Railroad.

The commissioners did not publicly disclose any of the conditions governing a possible purchase, but Union County Commissioner Steve McClure said he will not support any purchase that could increase local taxes.

The Oregon Legislature has earmarked $2 million in Lottery funds to help buy the railroad. The state Department of Parks and Recreation earlier received a $2 million grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation to purchase the land for a state park, but those funds are not expected to be available for a rail line purchase.

Interest groups in Union and Wallowa counties have met for nearly two years to explore ways of restoring rail service into Wallowa County, either for tourist travel or freight or a combination of both.

McClure said he does not want the county to operate a railroad, but he said he believes every opportunity should be explored to reopen the line.

I clearly dont think the burden should go to the taxpayers, he said. But with the state contribution of $2 million and maybe some additional money, we wont commit the taxpayers.

Before any decision can be made, a lot of questions must be answered, McClure said.

The two county commissions will make the final decision on buying the line.

The railroad reportedly has set the purchase price at $7.2 million and sold the tracks to a salvage company at about $2 million. When the salvage company began to remove the tracks near Joseph this summer, Wallowa County halted the operation, saying that any work on the tracks must follow the countys land use and salmon plans.

Rio Grande Pacific Railroad has alleged that the county has no jurisdiction in the matter and has filed a lawsuit against the county in U.S. District Court in Portland. The countys reply to the legal action was due in court Monday, and a hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 11.