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Geiger Spur gets boost from Legislature

Spokane County officials hope to boost development on the West Plains by building a train-loading center along the county’s 3.5-mile Geiger Spur rail line.

During the just-completed session, state legislators gave the county $60,000 to study where to build a transloader along the Geiger Spur. The state is expected to provide money to build the loading center next year.

A West Plains transloader site, occupying 15 to 20 acres, would use cranes and other equipment to transfer freight from rail to truck or vice versa.

County Economic Development Director Erik Skaggs said the transloader should be operating by the end of 2007.

Area officials say a transloader would help West Plains industries add jobs and be an incentive for new companies to locate there, said Joe Tortorelli, a transportation consultant the county hired to study the spur’s impact.

“This would open the possibility of doing more container shipping and transloading on the West Plains,” Tortorelli said.

Spokane County obtained the existing Geiger Spur line in 2004 in an effort to save rail-dependent businesses. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway donated the line because it was too costly to operate.

The state has set aside $5 million to move part of the line off Fairchild Air Force Base and to extend a new section of line along the east side of the base. The money would also replace some of the rail with heavier gauge steel to handle larger train loads.

After heading south across undeveloped rural land, the Geiger Spur would connect with the Palouse River Coulee City rail line not far from Medical Lake.

The exact route for the north-south section of spur has not set, Skaggs said. He said relocating the line should start later this year.

Some residents who live south of Airway Heights, however, say they’re concerned the West Plains transloader will mean more frequent trains on the Geiger Spur.

County resident Devon Rauenzahn said officials have told property owners that they needed to relocate the line to save existing businesses. The county’s interest in constructing a transloader shows the county’s real interest was to attract development – which means more frequent and longer trains, said Rauenzahn.

“We’re being told one thing, and yet, they’re promoting another,” she said.

Part of the $60,000 study will ask whether the county should run the transloader or find a contractor to manage operations, Skaggs said.

Inland Empire Distribution Systems, which operates the area’s only other transloader, has requested that it be considered to run the center as a satellite, said Matthew Ewers, Inland’s vice president of business development.

“If it was publicly funded and then in direct competition with private industry, to me that would be difficult for us to agree with,” Ewers said.

Transloading requires steady patronage to be profitable by itself, Ewers said. Inland Empire offers other services, including warehousing and packaging, to be successful.

One suggested benefit from a West Plains transloader would be eliminating the 10 daily truck trips hauling ash from the Waste-to-Energy Plant to a Burlington Northern loading site in Spokane Valley, said County Engineer Ross Kelly.

A new transloader would cut the ash-truck distance from about 20 miles per round trip to around six, depending on the transloader location, said Kelly. Trucks would no longer have to travel through Spokane and Spokane Valley to move those loads, said Kelly.

Once loaded onto rail, the waste ash is hauled by train to a Rabanco landfill in Klickitat County, he said.

Tortorelli said a logical location for the transloader would be along the two-mile stretch between Craig and Hayford roads. “That’s just my opinion. The land there is already zoned industrial” and that section already has sewer and water service, he pointed out.

Skaggs said the county also is seeking another $1.3 million to develop fiber-optic conduits that would be installed in the right of way as the rail line is constructed. That investment means future industrial and commercial users in that area would have broadband capacity for their businesses, he said.

“This will be a major project. Once it’s done, it will be the gift that keeps on giving” by increasing business development, Skaggs said.