Local government, Special Reports

ODOT stalls explaining intentions over reload center as confusing accounts emerge

Shawna Peterson needed help.

She hoped to find it in a private meeting in Ontario in early May.

For more than a year, she had worked as the hired administrator to revive the Treasure Valley Reload Center.

In recent months, she focused on getting more help from the Oregon Department of Transportation. But as records and interviews show, that May meeting seemed only to add to confusion about a project that was a mess. Uncertainty remains about the future of the Nyssa depot, which has already consumed $30 million in public money and is far from done.

Malheur County Development Corp’s first project manager, Greg Smith, had abandoned the effort in 2022 after five years. He left behind a project saddled with debt, unpaid bills, rail spurs to nowhere and no hope onions would move out of Nyssa anytime soon.

The county-created development company, in charge of the project, hired Peterson in early 2023 to figure out what to do. In the subsequent months, Peterson let go the original contractors and brought in new consultants. After reviews, they advised that the rail shipping center still could make sense for Malheur County, but only with major changes.

Getting there, though, would take money the development company didn’t have.

“I’m maxed out in terms of what we can do without funding,” she told her board last month.

A major obstacle appeared to be the Transportation Department.

The agency controlled most of the money set aside for the Nyssa project. Burned by years of delays and cost overruns, state officials last fall put a padlock on the state treasury. They wanted to see evidence, not promises, that a new plan would save Treasure Valley Reload Center. Only then would more state money flow.

Peterson had shared pressing needs with her board. There was $15,000 to finish a study on just where to ship onions by rail. She needed about $85,000 to tie the project to Union Pacific Railroad’s mainline, an urgent need since railroad crews were scheduled in the area this summer. And she needed roughly $250,000 to assess changing the depot building, rail spurs and project layout to make Treasure Valley Reload Center more feasible.

She advised the development company board that she would ask the state to release such funding.

“I am not interested in negotiating any part of this plan, as that is the staff’s job.”

–Julie Brown, Oregon Transportation Commission chair, in internal email

She later said she hadn’t asked for the money yet, but an internal Transportation Department email in late April indicated otherwise.

Whatever the case, the state agency made its position clear in a May 2 letter to Peterson. More work was needed by the development company. Until then, no more money would be released.

Peterson later characterized the state’s letter as “tone deaf.”

But then a route around that roadblock appeared.

In a bit of good fortune, the Oregon Transportation Commission had scheduled one of its “road tour” meetings in Ontario for May. The powerful body oversees the transportation agency.

The commission’s chair, Julie Brown, arranged to meet with Peterson.

Brown had been on the commission when it approved the Nyssa project and she now wanted to learn its status. By profession, she is general manager of the transit district based in Medford.

An ODOT division administrator, Amanda Pietz, alerted her about MCDC’s need for money the day before she met with Peterson.

“Their immediate request is for $250K for completing the financing plan and securing an operator,” Pietz wrote. “We could consider some funding to help ensure success of the project, but as of yet we have not opened up that door.”

For weeks, the agency had been preparing its letter to Peterson, responding to a new business plan that showed Treasure Valley Reload Center could pay its own way. ODOT was going to stand firm that key conditions had not yet been met to warrant more money.

“We are reaffirming that they must complete a more full business and financial plan and secure an operator before we release funds,” Pietz wrote in an internal email on April 24.

She shared the draft letter with Brown on April 30. The chair responded, sharing her intentions for a meeting in a few days with Peterson.

“I don’t view this meeting as an opportunity for the commission to weigh in on the staff’s work. It is a friendly meeting to meet her and let her know that we support the work that is happening,” Brown wrote. “So, have no fear; I am not interested in negotiating any part of this plan, as that is the staff’s job.”

On Wednesday, May 8, Peterson and Brown met for nearly an hour. The two leaders would later have differing recollections of the meeting.

The contrasting accounts that emerged in interviews and state records left local people thinking a powerful state figure was about to get that padlock off the Transportation Department money. State officials said that wasn’t so.

The day after her meeting with Brown, Peterson reported to the development company board, referring to a Texas company she wanted to retain.

“I think the odds of ODOT freeing money to further inform the business plan with Commtrex and updated budgeting, redesign to facilitate lending, all of that, I think that the chances of that are good,” she said.

A board member later asked her if “you feel positive…about getting study money?”

Peterson responded, “Yeah,” noting that the officials at ODOT “want a win.”

At another point in the meeting, a board member probed more.

“Until yesterday, all of your communication was actually with the bureaucracy and staff. And so it’s going to take the individuals that you talked with yesterday directing that staff to change their mind basically or release money. That right?” the director asked.

Peterson’s response: “Correct, correct.”

In a recent interview, Brown said Peterson had explained the project, changes likely to be made, and the need for money.

“She did say that they were going to need a release of funds to be able to implement their changes,” Brown said. “What I told her was I am sure that if the proposal was a good one, that it would come back to commission and that funds could be released to do that. But it had to go through the process.”

Brown said she made no commitment that the state would unlock the funding immediately.

“I told her to quit worrying about the money,” Brown said. “She needed to concentrate on the plan and meeting with the senior staff.”

The phrase about the money, Brown said, may have triggered Peterson’s later comments to her board.

Julie Brown, Oregon Transportation Commission chair. (ODOT photo)

“I think she probably made a lot of assumptions into what I was saying,” Brown said.

Peterson said in a subsequent interview she didn’t recall hearing any advice to not worry about the money.

Just days after her statements to the board, Peterson appeared to roll back her comments.

“There hasn’t been a state decision to release more money,” she wrote four days after her board comments.

Meantime, Transportation Department officials worked on their own statement regarding the development company board meeting. They were reacting to Enterprise questions to Brown about the reported change in the agency’s no-more-money position.

Records show a half-dozen of the agency’s top executives had a hand in drafting the response. That included Director Kris Strickler and his three assistant directors – Leah Horner, Lindsay Baker and Travis Brouwer. The agency’s planning director, who has primary responsibility over the Nyssa project, added his own edits. The agency’s communications director and his deputy also were involved, the records show.

Brown never directly responded but a day after getting the Enterprise questions, the agency’s deputy communications director did.

“I wanted to confirm we have received your inquiry and will be back in touch. Guess you’re on deadline?” wrote Katherine Benetani.

Benetani and others soon finished a response to the questions, sending it along for review by Baker, an ODOT assistant director. Baker in turn sent it along to Brown, but not until the following Monday morning.

The statement swatted down the idea that Brown was opening up funding for the project.

“The meeting this week was informational in nature and no decisions were made,” the draft said. “No commitments beyond what have previously been shared have been made. Any decision the agency makes will be based on thorough research and will be taken only after careful consideration.”

Brown got back to Baker in about an hour. Baker said she considered that approval to release the statement to the Enterprise.

But she didn’t do so.

In later interviews, Brown and Benetani said they didn’t know why the statement hadn’t been released.

Baker knew.

She said she was too busy to release the statement that Monday.

To determine why promised information hadn’t been released, the Enterprise the following day requested public records from ODOT, starting a process that often takes days.

That request, Baker said, prompted her to sit on the statement.

She explained that she thought the paper no longer wanted the statement from the agency’s media team but instead from a public records process. She couldn’t cite evidence of that.

Compelled by state records law, ODOT released Brown’s draft statement the following week.

Previous coverage:

Top ODOT leader signals support to release more state money to get rail center moving

State approval of new business plan puts reload center project back on track

Key study that justified Nyssa reload center now doubted by long-time board members

State will not enforce deadlines on rail reload project, waiting for new plan

Permit glitches impede progress on rail reload project

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