February 9, 2007 in City

State to buy crucial stretch of rail line

Richard Roesler Staff writer

OLYMPIA – After years of often-rancorous negotiation with a Kansas-based rail operator, the state has agreed to buy a 108-mile stretch of rail line between Cheney and Coulee City.

As first reported on spokesmanreview.com, the purchase price is about $5.6 million, according to Mark Blazer, senior vice president for the western region of Watco Companies Inc., the firm that owns the line.

“We’re happy we could work out the whole process with the state,” Blazer said. “As a private company, (the line) didn’t work for us.”

Local economic development officials and farmers have urged the state to prop up the line, which Watco said had been operating at a loss for years. The company infuriated some local growers and lawmakers by tacking hefty surcharges onto car shipments and at one point completely halted shipments.

“Washington for the first time will become the owner of a critical operating rail system that supports a large portion of our agricultural community,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire, who on Thursday signed a memorandum to buy the line. Without the support of lawmakers, farmers and others, she said, “this critical infrastructure would be lost.”

The so-called CW line is part of the larger Palouse River and Coulee City rail system, which stretches for more than 300 miles across the Palouse and the area west of Spokane. State taxpayers two years ago spent $6.5 million to buy the other main sections of the system: the PV Hooper and P&L branches.

“I’m happy to have this hurdle behind us,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

The next steps, he said, will be to improve the track for faster trains and to diversify the shipping with a proposed loading facility on the West Plains. Spokane County and other proponents are asking lawmakers for $4.3 million this year to build a rail loading center on the county’s 3.5-mile Geiger Spur line. Lawmakers gave $60,000 for a study of the project last year.

Under the memorandum of agreement, Watco will continue to run trains on the three branches until May 31. After that, the company will continue to operate the PV Hooper branch under an agreement with the state Transportation Department. The state plans to ask rail operators to submit bids for running the P&L and CW lines.

Nearly all the rail traffic on the CW line – about 2,400 cars a year, according to Blazer – consists of grain shipments. But local economic development officials say traffic could grow from local manufacturing or waste shipments.

Watco had long sought state help on its lines, saying that years of deferred maintenance by previous owners of the line left the company with a system that forced it to run trains very slowly. Upgrading rock, rail and ties could speed trains and increase efficiency, proponents say.

But Blazer said another big part of the line’s red ink was simple competition: Wheat growers would truck their crop to barge it down the Columbia River. A new loading facility in Ritzville was also a worry for keeping enough traffic on the short-line rail stretch to keep it profitable, he said.

Rep. David Buri, a Colfax Republican who’s spent much of the past 18 months trying to preserve the tracks, predicted that more growers will return to rail shipping now. And he said he’s confident that, as a whole, the 372-mile state-owned system will run in the black.

One problem yet to be solved, however, is what to do about a massive, decades-old wooden trestle that burned last year during a combine-caused brush fire near Colfax. Replacement estimates are $4.5 million to $5.5 million, Buri said. State officials are starting to think it might be smarter, he said, to lay 8 miles of new track between Oakesdale and Thornton, using an existing rail bed that was stripped of its rails years ago.

“We have roads, we have river, and rail is the third part of it,” he said.

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