By Amber Nobe
TILLAMOOK - The Port of Tillamook Bay won't rebuild a critical section of its railroad damaged by the December 2007 storm.
And the port has ended freight car service out of its industrial park.
That was decided during a special meeting of the port's commissioners Monday.
The board's unanimous decision was reached a little more than two weeks after a public forum was held by the port, during which support for repairing the railroad was overwhelming.
But port officials insisted serious questions linger about its ability to cover the more than $50-million price tag for repairs.
Since the storm, the port has searched for answers to major questions ranging from "Will the state offer money to help the railroad" to "Will shippers use the railroad once rebuilt?" Commissioners said that waiting game wasn't proving successful in getting answers.
"We haven't been doing anything and that hasn't worked. So we have to do something," said commissioner Ken Bell after moving to suspend rail service.
The port commissioners said they hope to prompt definitive answers from the state, FEMA and the port's shippers regarding funding and other support, liability and future usage now that they've said they aren't moving forward.
But absent funding from out of the blue, freight service has been suspended for the first 45 miles of the 90-mile track - from the port's property south of Tillamook, up Salmonberry Canyon, to rail mile 802 just east of Cochran.
The port did add that it was not abandoning the railroad entirely, thereby retaining the potential for freight service in the future.
Port officials now must file for a rail line discontinuance with the Surface Transportation Board, which requires that agency's approval and a fee, although the fee would be considerably less than an application to abandon the line altogether.
Commissioners went on to say the railroad will still be available for use by passenger railcars and tourism trains such as the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad, a nonprofit steam train for excursions from Garibaldi to Rockaway Beach. But they noted that without revenue from freight cars, there will be no funds to maintain that coastal stretch of the railroad. So the port expects to have to renegotiate its contract with OCSR and to start charging for use of the rails.
It was at the summit of the railroad's path over the Coast Range - from rail mile 810 at Enright to Cochran - that the tracks were most damaged by the floods, mudslides and winds of the 2007 winter storm. It's that section that won't be repaired.
But not all freight service on the port's railroad has been suspended. Activity on the last one-third of the tracks - from Cochran to Hillsboro, where the rail connects with Class 1 lines - will continue as it has for the past several months.
That section can service Banks Lumber, a rock quarry and railcar storage.
Port officials now say they will use any available FEMA disaster-relief funds for alternative projects. "We have some FEMA money; we have to use it or lose it," said commission president Jerry Dove.
The list of possible alternative projects includes upgrades to the methane digester facility, repairs to existing port offices, a proposed golf course on port property plus a convention center, and a variety of other improvements to its industrial park.
The port also could construct a dual line 4.5 miles long from Banks to Buxton, at rail mile 781, with crossovers for railcar storage.
Josh Balmer with the port's railroad operations division reported that demand for car storage is strong; the port receives calls about it every week, he said. Charging by the car for storage would boost port revenues, said Balmer.
Such alternative projects must be permanent and approved by FEMA to qualify for the funding. The money must be used to expand facilities, construct new-use facilities, purchase equipment or conduct hazard mitigation.
FEMA has offered to cover 75 percent of the cost of storm repairs. Of that 75 percent, 90 percent is available to fund alternative projects.
But the port first must find matching funds for any work it undertakes. Commissioners hope to qualify for a variety of grants, state loans and other sources to come up with the match money.
After the port reached its decision Monday, the commissioners' relief was evident. Several said they've lost considerable sleep in the past 14 months as a solution to the railroad's storm damage remained elusive.
The photos below show the line in the 1920's. These were taken by SP engineer H. Arey.
#1 -- Timber, Oregon
#2 -- Cochran, Oregon
#3 -- Salmonberry, Oregon