Local leaders want the state to release funds for a rail reload facility north of Nyssa. Thursday they testified before the state transportation commission about the project. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

SALEM – Malheur County went to Salem Thursday and pitched a case to state transportation officials to keep alive a rail reload center planned north of Nyssa.

Greg Smith, the economic development director for Malheur County, briefed and answered questions from the Oregon Transportation Commission on the $26-million local project during the afternoon session.

Smith and other supporters presented little new information about the project.

The state commission will decide in March whether to release state funds for the Nyssa rail center.

Grant Kitamura, CEO of Baker & Murakami Produce Co., state Rep. Lynn Findley, and Jim Maret, Nyssa city manager, also testified.

“The city of Nyssa, city council and planning commission and its residents are completely committed to the reload facility,” Maret told the commission.

Findley echoed Maret’s support.

“I am committed to this project,” said Findley.

Smith addressed concerns raised by the state and its consultants about the project. Those issues included a commitment from Union Pacific, ownership of the land at the project site, who would operate the facility once it is constructed and the overall economic viability of the project.

“We have to be able to demonstrate service from a Class I railroad and provide evidence of site ownership and who will operate it and do we have an over-reliance on onions,” said Smith.

Smith said the Malheur County Development Corp., a public business created by the Malheur County Court, has been working closely with Union Pacific.

“They have been out to our site three times,” said Smith.

Smith also told the commission that the development corporation has two escrow agreements in place on property selected for the reload center.

Smith said one of the advantages of the rail proposal is “there is no debt associated with our project and we can stage our growth incrementally.”

Smith told the commission that several firms, including a “major food processing company,” expressed interest in the local rail reload center.

The key question of commitment from Union Pacific, though, remained unanswered.

Wednesday, Smith released a letter from the railroad company that outlined its role in the project. Union Pacific said in the letter that it is “pleased to notify you that we are looking forward to working with you on developing rail service to the Treasure Valley Reload Center.”

The letter, however, stopped short of a firm commitment.

Matthew Garrett, director of the state Transportation Department, told the commission that the Nyssa project – along with two other rail reload proposals in the Willamette Valley – should address a “common set of deficiencies” before any state money was released to them.

Those deficiencies, he said, include “operational liquidity and the ability of each of the projects to operate successful without public money.”

Garrett recommended that the state move ahead with negotiations on an agreement with the Malheur County Development Corp. on the local reload center.

“The project sponsors still have several crucial areas that need to be addressed,” said Garrett.