EDITORIAL: Malheur County officials need to act quick to save rail project

Greg Smith, Malheur County’s economic development director (Mark Ylen/Mid-Valley Media)

The message from the Oregon Transportation Commission last week was unmistakable. Malheur County, despite years of effort and more than a half million in taxpayer dollars, can’t yet make the case that a rail shipping center in Nyssa wouldn’t become a sink hole of even more public money. County officials have just a few days to rescue this project from failure.

For months, county officials worked to convince the state to hand over $26 million in public money. The county’s economic development operation has often resorted to rosy claims instead of hard facts to make the case. If that poor work results in no deal, the county’s agriculture industry and the community will be the losers.

Consultants and state officials for months have questioned plans for the Treasure Valley Reload Center. They have virtually begged for Malheur County to come up with answers. They have received precious few. They are giving the county one last chance.

This has always been about service to the county’s onion industry. Three elements are crucial to onion growers and packers, judging by all the reports in recent months.

One is speed.

Getting onions to customers back east in a timely manner is crucial. From the start, county officials said Nyssa would get a mini-Wallula – the Washington-based rail center that runs direct express trains to the east coast. That dream is gone. Union Pacific Railroad is offering standard train service that consultants said service “will be significantly worse” than Wallula.

Speed as a benefit is out.

Another is reliability.

One rap on Union Pacific is that its service generally has declined and it can’t provide an adequate supply of railcars. Nyssa, promoters said, would fix that with regular service that can be counted on. But the railroad warns otherwise. Union Pacific said that “service may not be available” during peak seasons, according to the consultants.

Reliability is back in question.

The third is railcar supply.

Malheur County was advised last October this may be an issue but officials looked the other way. The county’s economic development department for months implied Union Pacific had it covered. When the railroad publicly declared it wouldn’t provide the cars, the county went on the chase to find refrigerated railcars. So far, it has a single letter from a vendor saying cars could be available. But the county hasn’t shared any idea what would be the cost to taxpayers and shippers of establishing its own rail fleet. When state officials pressed for an explanation last week, Greg Smith, the county economic development director, dodged.

Railcar costs remain a significant unknown.

And then came word that Smith and his crew have apparently turned their backs on a local employer, Oregon Eastern Railroad. The railroad, based in Vale, says it can provide service at a lot less cost than spending $26 million in Nyssa. And, it maintains, its local jobs could be jeopardized by the new plant. Smith, County Judge Dan Joyce, and every board member of Malheur County Development Corp. ignored our questions about this. The railroad’s claims stand unrebutted.

That Malheur County appears to ignore a local employer with an already-substantial investment is intolerable. An economic development program should always be keen to preserve jobs.

While county officials instead stand guard around Smith, the chance for a major development is slipping from their fingers. The alarm out of Salem is sounding loudly. The state has seen through the fog of the county’s claim and isn’t convinced this would be $26 million well spent. Malheur County has one last chance to save this, and that will be done only with truth and facts, not blarney. — LZ