Members of the Malheur County Development Corporation, the board that oversees the rail reload project, go over plans for the facility earlier this year. The preliminary work on the project is nearly complete. (The Enterprise/File)

ONTARIO – Demand for rail shipping services from Malheur County will be more than the proposed Nyssa project can handle, according to Greg Smith, Malheur County economic development director.

He said the county could use a depot seven times what is being planned with $26 million in state funds.

“It is a great problem for us to have,” said Smith.

He said findings in a draft economic analysis show that the reload facility as designed now would meet about a third of the traffic sought by Treasure Valley onion packers and farmers.

Seen as a major economic game-changer, farm products – especially onions – would be trucked into the rail reload facility and loaded onto trains for shipment across the country.

In an interview last week, Smith provided the most detailed analysis of the project to date and charted the progress of the four main contractors working on the rail center.

Smith said the economic study prepared by ECONorthwest isn’t complete but initial results reveal that the $26 million in state funds won’t be enough to meet agricultural shipping needs. 

Smith said plans call for a 70,000-square-foot building north of downtown Nyssa to load trains served by two rail spurs. 

“Right now, based on current demand I have the ability to load up to 300 cars a week,” he said. 

“The math says I have to have almost 70 employees. Where am I going to put 70 employees in a 70,000-square foot reload facility? I am going to need a facility of half a million square feet,” said Smith.

“We heard from so many shippers and packers about the need. We intrinsically knew the demand was going to be high,” said Smith.

A bigger facility, he said, would require more money. That means, he said, the rail reload center would expand in phases as more funding from the state or federal grants becomes available.

“We will scale it to what we can afford,” said Smith. “For $26 million, you can buy $26 million worth of industrial park and buildings.” Smith said a third rail spur would be needed to meet demand.

“I don’t have the money but I have the need,” said Smith.

Contracts in full swing.

Smith said initial work on the project, budgeted at $860,000, is under way and will ramp up during the next few weeks. 

He said 10 tasks must be completed by the time he makes a presentation to the Oregon Transportation Commission Sept. 27. At that meeting, Smith will hand over a complete plan for the facility and ask for the remaining $24 million allocated for the Malheur County project. As of last week, only a few of the 10 tasks were finished, said Smith. 

“There are so many moving pieces that I am trying to bring together these last 25 days that it would be irresponsible for me to say it’s all done,” said Smith.

 Three firms are tasked with most of the work, he said. Anderson Perry & Associates is assigned the engineering work, ECONorthwest is finishing its economic analysis and RailPros is designing the rail components.

The 10 tasks originally scheduled to be done by Sept. 1 include a detailed site analysis, engineering, purchase of the land, the economic study, a revenue projection, railway track design, traffic impact study, a design and construction schedule and letters of support from public agencies. 

The most expense task at a budgeted $178,000 is the site analysis. 

That analysis will provide an economic review of the site, surveying, mapping, engineering and geotechnical reports and a preliminary rail plan. 

The second largest contract at $115,000 is for a feasibility study. 

That study assesses the market for the products that could shipped by the center.

Smith said he also hired consultants to finish smaller elements of the site work. For example, said Smith, a stretch of land on the east side of the rail center site contains wetlands.

“I am getting ready to retain a consultant from the The Wetlands Conservancy. If we are going to have them (wetlands) how do we manage them to be compatible with industry?” said Smith.

Smith said he would retain an accountant “to make sure every cent is accounted for. 

Malheur County also recently provided county funds to Smith to hire former Enterprise reporter John Braese to pursue grants for the project. 

Testing of the soil at the site is complete, said Smith. 

 “It is not an issue. That soil is very compatible for industrial development,” said Smith. Smith said he believes his contractors will finish their work about $150,000 under budget.

“Every one of my contracts is on schedule,” said Smith. Smith said the high demand from the Treasure Valley’s onion industry is good news.

“We will not be cutting back on anything. As cash flow and future funding opportunities come available, we will continue to expand,” said Smith.

State Rep. Lynn Findley, a member of the development corporation board, said he isn’t surprised there is a big demand for the rail reload center. Findley is a former Vale city manager.

“I thought it would do this. I have talked to the hay industry in Harney County and they are excited about this. So there are a lot of opportunities out there,” said Findley. Smith said he plans to conduct several town hall meetings in the coming weeks to brief the community on the progress of the rail center.