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.

SALEM — Despite misgivings about the proposal’s economics, a final review committee has recommended awarding an Oregon transportation grant to an intermodal facility in the Treasure Valley.

The facility would primarily transfer onions from trucks to refrigerated railcars in Nyssa, Ore., reducing the agricultural industry’s reliance on trucking to deliver the crop to distant markets.

Oregon lawmakers approved $26 million for the proposal in 2017 but the facility must still pass muster with the Oregon Transportation Commission, which will rely on recommendations from the final review committee that met in Salem, Ore., on Jan. 11.

Several committee members said they had a “soft spot” for the region in Eastern Oregon and sympathized with its economic problems but worried about the facility’s financial prospects.

The facility could prove successful if it expanded its product base beyond onions, which don’t provide a year-round source of business for intermodal operations, Robert “Wade” Mosby, a retired vice president of the Collins forest products company, said.

However, Mosby said it’s unlikely the private sector would invest in the facility right now.

James Ballet, the retired owner of a heavy machinery rental company, said the independent review by the Tioga Group, a transportation analysis firm, raised concerns about the intermodal facility’s prospects as a viable business.

“The more I read, the more discouraged I got,” said Ballet.

That concern was shared by Mark Gibson, president of Siskiyou Transportation, a trucking and helicopter company. He said the project would serve the public good but was shaky from the business perspective.

“It didn’t seem to me it would really pencil out,” he said.

Even so, the “economic blight” along the Oregon border is “startling” in comparison to the bustle in nearby Idaho, which should compel the state government to take action, said Tony Hyde, a former Columbia County commissioner.

“It’s on the edge, but the upside is huge,” he said.

Mosby, the retired forest products executive, said he’d recommend funding the project due to his faith in the farmers and other supporters in the Treasure Valley area.

“I think they’ll make it work if we support them,” he said.

According to the Tioga Group, the Treasure Valley intermodal facility faces risks because it may not be able to secure railroad service at competitive rates and because its product volume estimates are “overly optimistic.”

The final review committee largely concurred with Tioga’s recommendation that state funding should be contingent on getting commitments from railroads and other necessary entities that would make the site functional.

“There was some mention about taking away work from Idaho, and I’m all about that,” said Hyde.

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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