EDITORIAL: Perseverance pays off in pursuit of Malheur County rail project

There are many local heroes who can take a bow for the success in winning state approval of the Treasure Valley Reload Center. No question that determination, flexibility and persistence paid off big time for Malheur County.

Let’s acknowledge the lead role of Greg Smith, Malheur County’s economic development director, and Grant Kitamura, president of the Malheur County Development Corp. Smith fought his way through sharp critiques from the state – and from the Enterprise – to find a way to make Nyssa’s rail project economically feasible. Kitamura worked hard behind the scenes to marshal the essential commitment of the onion industry to use the new service.

That led the Oregon Transportation Commission last week to go all-in on the rail project. There are still plenty of strings attached to be sure public money is wisely used before $26 million is put into county hands. And state officials made clear they expect county officials to make good on promises and expectations.

The key to this decision was the county’s last-minute pivot to go into the rail car business. An uncertain supply of refrigerated cars has been a major complaint of the local onion industry. Smith and his team promised to solve that by creating a Malheur County fleet of up to 200 rail cars, leased in the county’s name. That creative and quick solution saved the Treasure Valley Reload Center.

Union Pacific had warned at the start of the year that it wouldn’t provide the cars, and rail shipping center advocates were slow to heed the warning. In May, Union Pacific offered another warning that ought to be just as critical for the rail shipping center plans. The railroad told the county in a letter that “seasonal onion volumes present UP with resource challenges that may affect service.” The state concluded that meant the railroad wasn’t guaranteeing it could ship onions at peak times even if rail cars were at hand.

This is no modest concern. The rail project was originally pitched to be as speedy as a Washington competitor and more reliable. The planning for Treasure Valley Reload Center must pin down Union Pacific to some level of guaranteed service. The shipping center won’t be much help if onions meant for eastern markets are parked on rail cars in Nyssa because Union Pacific is jammed up.

And the pivot to the rail car business also seems to open yet another economic opportunity for Malheur County. Locally, we have our own railroad – Oregon Eastern Railroad. For reasons not shared with the public, county officials never seemed to engage the railroad in planning for the new shipping center. Now that should change. Oregon Eastern might make a great partner in helping manage Malheur County’s new rail fleet, from moving cars around locally to producers to storing and maintaining them. That could create more highly paid jobs than originally anticipated.

At the Enterprise, we will continue to be a watchdog on this project, for it’s vital to the community the project be done right and in a way that warrants public trust. For the moment, though, we offer our sincere congratulations to Smith, Kitamura and others who persevered to keep this economic project rolling down the track. – LZ