By John L. Braese
ONTARIO – In her visit last winter to Malheur County, Gov. Kate Brown promised to help as she toured buildings destroyed by the winter. On Monday, Brown came back to town to celebrate the fulfillment of that promise.
Before a packed house of city and country officials, growers and shippers of commodities and interested citizens at the Ontario Train Depot, Brown signed House Bill 2017.
The legislation is a transportation package that is key to Malheur County for providing $26 million for a rail shipping center to serve agriculture.
“Our goal is for everyone in Oregon to thrive,” Brown said in opening remarks before laying pen to paper. “We want all to have a good life in every corner of the state.”
She said the rail center is important to the entire region.
“This has truly been a team effort and a shared vision,” the governor said.
Brown credited State Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, with the passage of the bill.
“This package would not have happened without the leadership of Rep. Bentz,” said Brown. “He gave his heart and soul in the crafting of this bill and he almost gave his life.”
Brown was referring to the heart attack Bentz suffered late in the legislative session as the fate of the transportation package became embroiled in Capitol politics. He recovered and was back to work within four days.
“Rep. Bentz worked very hard to ensure the rail facility was in the package,” she said.
As if to punctuate Brown’s point about the importance of the rail project, freight trains rumbling by just outside the depot announced their entry into the city, fittingly interrupted the governor’s words.
Bentz told the crowd that the package wouldn’t have been possible without the involvement of city councils and the county court. He also thanked the governor for her efforts in the late hours of the legislative session.
“As time wound down, it was apparent this bill was dead,” Bentz said. “The governor brought her staff to the table and we got it passed.”
Bentz ended his comments in a joking manner.
“If you keep coming over here governor, we will actually think we are a part of Oregon,” said Bentz.
Grant Kitamura, president of Baker/Mirakami Produce and a member of the board looking at sites available for the rail center, said he saw the true compassion of the governor during her winter visit.
“We asked her for engineers to look at the buildings and she did it,” said Kitamura. “This facility will help us move out product, but it will also appeal to a lot of perishable products in our area.”
Greg Smith, Malheur County economic development director, said he had numerous meetings with the governor about the bill.
“She just kept asking me what can I do for the people in eastern Oregon,” Smith said.
Current estimates are increased gas taxes and fees will produce $5.3 billion over the next 10 years for highway and road work.
The $26 million for the rail facility will help 300 Treasure Valley growers ship 1.5 billion pounds of onions out of the area. These growers now truck their onions more than 200 miles to a rail facility in Wallula, Wash. The cost of the trucking adds 50 cents to each 50-pound bag of onions.
Once built, the facility is expected to return $15 million per year back into farmers’ hands.
Aside from the rail facility, $1.2 million will be added yearly to the county road budget for the next 10 years. Adrian and Jordan Valley each will get an additional $4,000, Vale will get $43,000 and Nyssa will see additional $76,000. Ontario, the largest city in the county, will get an additional $265,000.
Have a news tip? Contact reporter John L. Braese at 541-473-3377 or [email protected].