Though the locations are less than 30 miles apart, supporters of competing sites for a Willamette Valley intermodal facility claim stark differences between the two.
Containers of agricultural goods would be unloaded from trucks at the Oregon facility, then loaded onto trains bound for major shipping ports along Washington’s Puget Sound.
Lawmakers approved funding for the project in 2017 with the intent of having trucks hauling containers avoid Portland traffic snarls on their way to port.
The choice between two Oregon towns — Brooks and Millersburg — will now be up to the state’s transportation regulators, who must decide which site will receive up to $25 million in taxpayer dollars.
Proponents of each location recently submitted their final proposals to the Oregon Department of Transportation, which has about four months to pass on its findings to the Oregon Transportation Commission, which oversees the agency and will make the ultimate choice.
Selecting which project to fund will involve a multi-step process, with ODOT, the Business Oregon economic development agency and a third-party reviewer all submitting recommendations to the commission, which doesn’t face a decision deadline.
“It’s a look whether it’s going to be sustainable, operatable over the long term,” said Erik Havig, planning manager at ODOT, noting that the applicants may be asked to supply additional data.
“It’s possible one gets it, or neither one,” he said.
The Oregon Port of Willamette, which proposed the facility be built on undeveloped farmland in Brooks, argues that its closer proximity to Portland is an advantage because the site is more likely to draw import containers bound for the metropolitan area.
Wherever it’s located, the facility will need to attract imports to make empty containers available to exporters, who otherwise may have to bear the cost of repositioning empties from elsewhere.
Ocean carriers own the containers and often have policies against releasing them to intermodal facilities farther than 200 miles inland, said Kevin Mannix, the Oregon Port of Willamette’s executive director.
“They don’t like losing control, so they like to have a relationship with businesses that are importing and exporting,” he said.
Brooks is within 185 miles of rail docks at the Port of Tacoma, while Millersburg is about 215 miles away, putting it “outside the zone of opportunity,” Mannix said.
The Linn Economic Development Group, which wants to site the facility in Millersburg, acknowledges in its proposal that some shippers in the northern Willamette Valley would be willing to truck goods to Brooks, but not as far south as Millersburg.
“By being able to capture additional volume originating in Yamhill and Clackamas counties, the Brooks location may observe an 11 percent higher volume of containers,” the application said.
However, because shipping goods by rail becomes more cost-effective over longer distances, and because trucks will be kept off Oregon highways for a higher number of miles, the total economic benefit of locating the facility farther south in Millersburg is greater, according to the Linn Economic Development Group.
“If the State’s goal is to maximize public benefits to residents through reduced pollution, highway wear and tear, and fewer accidents, then the optimal location would be Millersburg, followed closely by Eugene,” the report said.
The Millersburg location has the added benefit of already being zoned for industrial development, as it was formerly a paper mill, said Greg Smith, LEDC’s project manager.
The Millersburg proposal recognizes that the number of containers imported to the facility is likely to be far surpassed by the demand for empties.
However, the partnership with Northwest Container Services, which operates an intermodal facility in Portland, will help resolve that problem, Smith said.
“Whether you’re in Brooks or Millersburg or Eugene, that’s an issue you’re going to have to work on,” he said.