Governor adds muscle to Malheur County rail depot

By Les Zaitz

The Enterprise

SALEM – Gov. Kate Brown has directed the state’s key business agency to help push forward a new rail shipping plant in Malheur County that has been on the local “wish list” for years.

The plant, called a transload facility, would allow local producers to truck products and livestock to a central rail yard. Special trains would then deliver the goods to the east coast in just days, cutting shipping costs and giving producers a competitive edge.

Brown’s directive is just one step she has taken to help Malheur County after she toured winter storm damage on Feb. 10.

Construction of the transload facility has been a priority for local government officials and industry.

Similar facilities operate in Washington and California, run by a company called Railex. The site in Wallula includes a two-mile rail loop track, refrigerated warehouses, and a wine distribution roughly the size of five grocery stores. Railex assembles entire trains of product that then make the run to the east, arriving in five days, according to the company’s website.

A similar plant in Malheur County would cost approximately $22 million.

Bryan Hockaday, Brown’s communications director, said Friday that the governor sees such a loading facility as a “huge asset.”

“We’re trying to get this project moving forward,” Hockaday said. “The governor really wants to get this ball rolling.”

Brown has asked Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency, to seek loans or grants to acquire land for the project.

Nathan Buehler, spokesman for Business Oregon, said the agency is in the “first phase” of the project.

“If we do a transload facility there, where is an ideal site, and can we front a little bit of money to identify or secure the property?” Buehler said. The next step would be to figure out where to get money to build the project.

Such a facility “would be absolutely huge for our county,” said state Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario. He said cutting shipping costs would make the area even more attractive as a place to raise crops.

Bentz is the one who pressed Brown to travel to the area last month to personally assess the storm damage.

“She was astounded at the damage,” Bentz said. He said he urged her to make the trip when she called him last month – while he was on a roof stop shoveling snow. “I sent her a photo as proof,” Bentz said.

Seven days after her tour, Brown convened a meeting in her Salem conference room of top agency officials and legislators. That included Senate President Peter Courtney, House Speaker Tina Kotek, and state Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day , the Senate Republican leader who represents Malheur County. Among the state’s top executives gathered were the directors of the departments of Agriculture, Transportation, Corrections, Environmental Quality, Consumer and Business Affairs and Military.

State officials reported at what Hockaday described as an “all hands on deck” meeting on what their agencies were doing to help Malheur County.

“Everybody was encouraged that folks were coming together really quickly with the object to do everything possible to help,” Hockaday said. “There was a need, too, to let the local folks know that while we’re doing everything possible, we are limited in some ways.”

Among steps the state has taken is to help clear out ruined onions, looking for ways to dispose of them and reduce disposal fees, Hockaday said. The state cleared the county landfill to exceed its daily limits and install new trenches for onion waste. County officials said last week the trenches were no longer needed.

The state is determining what funding is available for infrastructure and construction grants to keep or add jobs, including financial help for onion producers, Hockaday said. The state might reach into its strategic reserve fund, used for economic development projects, to help businesses rebuild if there are gaps in insurance coverage, he said.

Bentz said the governor has been true to her word to the community she would help.

“The governor has been doing all she can,” Bentz said. “In a disaster situation, politics goes out the window.”