ONTARIO, Ore. — Malheur County, Ore., leaders aim to start construction of a truck-to-train shipping center north of Nyssa in about a year and have it ready to take shipments in the fall of 2021.

That partly reflects Union Pacific Railroad Co.’s written endorsement of design progress, county Economic Development Director Greg Smith said at the Idaho-Malheur County Onion Growers Associations annual meeting here Feb. 4.

Planning for the intermodal shipping facility, to be called Treasure Valley Reload Center, started more than three years ago. It will be mainly for onions — now trucked some 230 miles to Wallula, Wash., only to return east on trains to big markets — but will be available for shipment of other agricultural products.

The onion industry of southwestern Idaho and southeastern Oregon supplies more than 40% of U.S. consumption in winter and early spring, meeting participants said.

Smith said that since the local group’s engineers met UP’s required 5%, then 30%, progress benchmarks, the railroad’s own engineers will team with them to guide the project to final internal approval.

“Now that we have the letter from UP, we move to 100% design-engineering,” he said.

“We are looking forward to working with you on developing new rail service to this location,” Union Pacific wrote in a Jan. 28 letter to Malheur County Development Corp. “Based on the 30% design dated Jan. 15 and representations made to UP, UP plans to move forward with its track authorization process subject to the company (MCDC) satisfying the conditions.”

MCDC must complete various project tasks and pay $125,000 — to be treated as a deposit — for UP’s engineering and other project work, the letter said. MCDC will work with a UP marketing and sales representative to prepare a plan for the rail service it would receive and the rates it would pay.

An environmental assessment, and water impact and soil compaction studies, have been completed as part of reaching Union Pacific’s 30% design-engineering progress threshold, Smith said.

Treasure Valley Reload Center is planned on 294-plus acres on the east side of Arcadia Boulevard from Gamble Island Road north to Gem Avenue. UP's main line forms the east boundary. The site purchase was completed Jan. 11.

The Oregon Transportation Commission last summer gave conditional approval to $26 million in grant funding.

Smith would not identify the would-be operator, but said it is publicly traded company that has done business in the Treasure Valley for years and “has avenues to opening new markets.”

The Malheur Enterprise has reported the proposed operator is Americold, a national shipping and warehouse company.

Treasure Valley Onion Shippers LLC formed recently after Americold said it wanted to negotiate with one group, said Grant Kitamura of the MCDC board and Baker & Murakami Produce, a major onion shipper in Ontario.

The Enterprise reported that Kitamura is also an organizer of the new company.

The new entity comprises 14 shippers, representing more than 70% of fresh-onion shipments out of the valley, and is open for others to join.

Service and fee negotiations involving the shipper entity, the operator and UP are expected to start in the next few weeks, he said.

Mike Walker, who farms about 250 acres near Adrian, attends MCDC’s weekly public meetings in Ontario.

“It’s an important long-term development for the county,” he said. Large, complex investments may not produce immediate apparent gains, “but for the people who come along 10 years from now, it’s going to be fantastic.”

Bruce Cruickshank, a farmer on the nearby Oregon Slope, said he wonders what percentage of the region’s onions will move from truck to rail shipment, if the amount will be enough to justify the expense, if savings will be passed to growers, and if Treasure Valley Reload will benefit large-scale shippers primarily.

He does not grow onions but has in the past.

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