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.
The purchase price is about $5.6 million, according to Mark Blazer, senior vice president for the western region of Watco Companies, Inc., the company that owns the line.
“We’re happy we could work out the whole process with the state,” he said. “As a private company, it (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.
Under the memorandum of agreement, Watco will continue to run trains on all 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.