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Sue Lani Madsen: Short line railroads are a vital part of Washington’s transportation grid

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis.  Photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015.  JESSE TINSLEY (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis. Photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. JESSE TINSLEY (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen,columnist

Last weekend there was a big-deal event just west of Reardan, Washington. Cars filled the overflow parking lot at the venue and lined the shoulders of Highway 2 and Highway 231. And it wasn’t even a basketball tournament.

The Inland Northwest Railway Museum was ready for its ribbon-cutting after three years in construction. Attendance at the open house that followed was estimated by organizers as at least 800, exceeding all expectations as well as the supply of free hot dogs.

While the event was a museum opening, history wasn’t the centerpiece of the requisite political speeches. Lincoln County Commissioner Rob Coffman focused on the importance of short line railroads in sustaining the agricultural economy. State Rep. Matt Manweller, a Republican from Ellensburg, emphasized the work of the Rail Caucus in reminding the Legislature “there is economic development east of Snoqualmie Pass.”

If you were playing a word association game and said “short line railroad,” you’d probably hear “Monopoly” as the response. Not many people know the state of Washington owns rail lines as part of our basic state transportation infrastructure.

When the Washington state Department of Transportation got into the short line railroad business, the primary goal was supporting grain exports out of Eastern and Central Washington to ports on the West Side of the state. A 2006 market analysis applauded the investment as key to the state’s export-dependent economy. It also identified a longer list of “public and private benefits, both quantifiable and potential.”

The most readily quantified impact is on roadways. If the CW line serving the route from Cheney to Coulee City via Reardan were abandoned, the market analysis estimated an additional cost to maintain and rebuild county and state roads at a minimum of $25.7 million and a worst case of more than $61.5 million. Similar benefits were found for the entire system, a total of 300 miles of track. It is the longest short line system in the state.

Almost $5 million has been invested by the state in the Palouse River and Coulee City Rail system over the last eight years in capital improvements. Additional capital funding allocations of $47 million are anticipated over the next 16 years. Operation of the lines is leased to private companies, who are also required to invest in capital maintenance. The goal is to bring all of the lines up to Class 2 standards, allowing for greater traffic and more economic development.

The hoped-for economic impacts included spurring additional development along the short lines. After years of deferred maintenance and threatened closures, private investors did step up once the basic rail infrastructure was in stable ownership.

The new HighLine Grain Terminal next to Interstate 90 near Four Lakes is the newest industrial development. Paul Katovich, general manager, described the terminal as a center of “economic magnetism,” drawing bushels from as far as Douglas County. Grain comes in to the terminal from country storage on the short line or by truck, depending on its origin. The HighLine terminal has multiple concrete “tubes” to segregate grain by variety as well as class and quality, enabling it to serve as a just-in-time warehouse.

The HighLine followed the successful development of the McCoy Grain Terminal near Rosalia. From the air, the terminals look like simple model train sets, with one switch connecting the loading loop to the short line. Each grain train passes through the terminal in a line of over a hundred cars, filling each car to order for export or domestic purchasers.

The short lines are not just an economic benefit for agriculture. The state transportation department’s 2015-25 strategic plan for the Palouse River and Coulee City Rail System cites “reduced wear and tear on local roadways and highways, improved transportation safety, and reduced air pollution.” Reduced air pollution is the politically neutral code phrase for lower carbon emissions and reduced carbon footprint.

Coffman, the Lincoln County commissioner who also serves as one of the representatives on the Palouse-Coulee City Rail Authority Board, highlighted the diversity of uses in private economic development. “With this museum located right on the CW Line, it increases the possibilities for attracting visitors and expands the future uses of the railroad.”

Bob Westby at the Department of Transportation confirmed the state is looking into an update of the original economic analysis to monitor if results have been on track with projections in the first 10 years.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a ride on a real Short Line, the miniature train ride that used to be a staple at the Spokane Interstate Fair is now providing rides around the grounds of the Inland Northwest Railway Museum and their collection of vintage rolling stock from engines to caboose and every type of car in between.

Columnist Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at or on Twitter, @SueLaniMadsen.

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