Business & economy

State commission delays Nyssa rail center decision, keeping project alive one more month

Greg Smith, Malheur County economic development director, and Larry Wilson, a Malheur County commissioner, urge the Oregon Transportation Commission on Thursday, June 19, to approve a proposed rail project in Nyssa. The meeting was in Salem. (Mark Ylen/Mid-Valley Media)

SALEM – Supporters of a $26 million-dollar rail reload facility north of Nyssa must wait until next month to find out whether the state will support the project.

The Oregon Transportation Commission voted to push a final decision on the Nyssa project – and two similar rail ventures in the Willamette Valley – to July 18.

The commission decision came after Mike Garrett, director of the state Transportation Department, said he could not recommend “advancing any of the three projects” at this time.

Commission Chair Tammy Baney said if the commission was “pushed to make a decision today, it would be no.”

The delay until next month gives Malheur County and supporters of the Treasure Valley Reload Center less than a month to turn over information that turns that likely no into a yes.

Officials want more information regarding cost estimates of rail service, shipping prices and costs, an updated business plan and whether the facility will have a sustainable customer base.

The commission directed the Transportation Department to develop a list of questions for all three projects sponsors by 5 p.m. Friday. After that, the supporters of all three projects have until July 12 to deliver their answers.

Garrett said there was too many lingering questions to give any of the projects a green light.

“It became apparent to me that there does indeed remain deficiencies where information is just lacking or information is just not specific enough or dated,” Garrett said.

The remarks came after Greg Smith, Malheur County’s economic development director, and Malheur County Commissioner Larry Wilson briefly addressed the commissioners at their Salem meeting and answered a few questions.

Local elected leaders have been working for about three years on the rail reload center.

The rail center can trace its roots to the 2017 passage of a massive state transportation bill by the Oregon Legislature.

The rail reload facility is seen by many as a local economic game-changer where farm products would be trucked into the center and loaded on to trains for fast shipment across the country.

In September, 2018, Greg Smith, Malheur County economic development director, delivered a preliminary plan for the facility to state transportation officials that consisted of an economic feasibility study, cost estimates and a site blueprint.

In December, Smith said he anticipated the money for the project would be released and construction would begin in the spring.

The project stalled in February when the Transportation Commission raised an array of questions about whether the center was economically sustainable. The state wanted answers regarding where rail cars for the facility would come from, who would operate the facility and sought a firm commitment of service from Union Pacific. The commission also sought written proof from the county that the business plan for the center was acceptable to Union Pacific.

The commission was slated to make a final decision on the reload project in March but instead created new deadlines – in April and May – for the development corporation to answer its questions.

Union Pacific pledged service to the facility in May but said it could not furnish express shipping or provide rail cars. The railroad firm also said it may not be able to ship commodities during peak times.

Also in May, county officials confirmed they were in “active conversations” with AmeriCold Logistics to operate the rail facility. Either the development corporation or the facility operator will lease rail cars for the facility.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

Reporter Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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