Planning for onion rail transload facility off to a good start

A planned intermodal facility would allow the bulb onions grown in the Treasure Valley of Oregon and Idaho to be placed on rail cars heading to major markets on the East Coast. The proposal has won a tentative recommendation for state funding from a review committee.

ONTARIO, Ore. — The effort to build a major rail transload facility in Malheur County that many people say could be a game-changer for the area’s onion industry is reportedly off to a good start.

The facility would allow the bulb onions grown in the Treasure Valley of Oregon and Idaho to be placed on rail cars heading to major markets on the East Coast, instead of being trucked 216 miles West to Wallula, Wash., before making that journey east.

That would reduce transportation costs and speed up delivery times for onions headed to the East Coast, according to onion industry leaders.

“I think it will be great for our industry. The sooner, the better,” said Eddie Rodriguez, co-owner of Partners Produce, an onion shipper in Payette, Idaho.

A $5.3 billion transportation bill passed by the Oregon Legislature this year includes $26 million for the facility, which will focus on the onion industry but could benefit other commodities as well.

Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, co-vice chairman of the committee that crafted the transportation bill, said supporters of the transload facility have been told by Oregon Department of Transportation officials “to move forward with as much alacrity as possible.”

“We are not concerned about having the money. We have the money,” he said. “I think it’s going exactly as planned.”

The Malheur County Court has appointed a seven-member board that will oversee plans for the facility and have authority to enter into contracts necessary for such things as construction, land acquisition and facility leases.

Four of the board members are from the onion industry.

Shay Myers, general manager of Owyhee Produce, an onion shipper in Nyssa, Ore., said the facility is a major deal for the region’s onion industry and needs to be designed with as much foresight as possible.

“I think this is critically important as to whether or not the onion industry exists 20 years from now in this area,” he said. “It’s that big a deal.”

Paul Skeen, president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association, said the facility can’t come quick enough.

“Our transportation has just become a real bottleneck,” he said. “This is a game-changer.”

The region’s onion industry faces chronic transportation issues, said Kay Riley, manager of Snake River Produce, an onion shipper in Nyssa.

“This should help resolve that,” he said.

Not having to send onions to Wallula first will be one of the facility’s major benefits, Riley said.

“We should have a geographic advantage over Washington, which we’ve kind of lost,” he said. “This should help re-establish that.”

Bentz said possible obstacles to building the facility include talks with Union Pacific breaking down or the community disagreeing on where it should be located or how it should be managed.

There are several possible sites in or near Ontario and Nyssa.

Bentz said conversations with UP are going well and “so far, we’ve been able to avoid those types of disagreements” over location and management.

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