Officials in four Eastern Washington counties are considering an agreement that could put them in the railroad business.
The Spokane County Commission approved the agreement Friday. The Port of Whitman and the Lincoln and Grant county commissions are expected to act next week.
If all approve, an Interlocal Railroad Authority will be created that could accept state funds for refurbishing more than 300 miles of rail vital to the shipment of grain and other goods. But some officials are concerned that with the money will come an obligation to maintain operations on that track or a commitment to spend far more money than the state has so far made available to upgrade rail so worn that trains can travel only 10 mph.
The Washington Legislature has set aside $7 million that would be transferred to the authority. In addition, $3.6 million has been committed for the most urgent repairs.
Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said $1.6 million more that went unspent when the state bought the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad last year should also be made available to the authority.
“If there is money left over, this is rail money,” he said.
State Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, does not agree.
The vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee said the state will have spent $28 million buying and rehabilitating the lines if all the money set aside for the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad is transferred to the railroad authority. Asking counties that will benefit from those expenditures to assume responsibility for continued operation of the railroad is a fair deal, he said.
“Nothing in transportation should be a free ride,” said Marr, adding he has been criticized for his hard line.
Three railroad companies operate on the track consolidated under the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad. Mike Rowswell, special initiatives manager for the DOT’s Rail and Marine Division, said the state has an operating agreement with the largest of the three, Watco Companies, that allows it to renew the pact until 2049 if certain conditions are met.
The other two contracts can be renewed every five years by mutual agreement, he said.
Rowswell said the state will transfer responsibility for those contracts to the authority along with the $7 million, adding, “They become the railroad if the current operator leaves.”
Grant County Commissioner LeRoy Allison said the money may be just a fraction of the funds that will be needed to maintain the tracks. But the alternative if the railroads shut down is a steady stream of grain-laden trucks breaking down roads.
“There’s financial concerns on the local level, certainly,” Allison said.