On The Rails

Truck-to-rail intermodal facilities in Nyssa and Millersburg seek to boost Oregon agriculture.

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Eastern Oregon and Idaho are often lumped together when it comes to onion production, due to regional similarites. Combined, the area comprises more than 22,800 acres of onion farms, and is the second-largest onion-producing region in the U.S.

But as far as Oregon growers are concerned, Oregon and Idaho are anything but a conglomerate. With higher property taxes, a higher minimum wage and higher rate of traffic congestion, Oregon growers frequently find it difficult to compete with their onion-producing neighbor to the east.

“There was a massive snowstorm the county a few years back, and a lot of these [growers] were receiving insurance checks. They were having to make the decision to stay in Oregon or move to Idaho,” says Greg Smith, Malheur County Economic Development director.

“We visited with one of these companies who said what would really make it attractive for them to stay in Oregon would be a reload facility where local shippers could come by truck, temporarily store their onions, and then ship them across the world.”

The will to construct such a facility was there, according to Smith, but the way appeared less clear. “We reached out to Union Pacific, and at the time they were hemming and hawing because all we had was an idea with no money,” he says.

The wish has been granted by the state’s 2017 transportation bill, which provides $5.3 billion to reduce carbon emissions, repair roads and bridges, and ease congestion. Smith is now the project manager for a freshly funded truck-to-rail intermodal facility construction project in Millersburg in the Willamette Valley. The facility will make it easier to transport produce to ports in Tacoma and Seattle in Washington.

The project is one of two intermodal facility constructions funded by the Oregon Department of Transportation. The other is located in Nyssa in Eastern Oregon.

Funding for the projects was approved unanimously on July 18th by the Oregon Transportation Commission, and is split nearly evenly, with $26 million going towards the facility in Nyssa, and $25 million to Millersburg. Both facilities will have the ability to transfer goods moved by truck onto trains, and will be equipped with cooling facilities to ensure the freshness of agricultural products.

A third proposal for a facility in Brooks did not receive funding. Consultants from the Tioga Group, hired by the state to conduct an assessment of potential facilities, found that the proposals in both Millersburg and Brooks carried “substantial commercial and economic risk,” and concluded that neither project was likely to succeed on a stand-alone basis.

Despite the Brooks proposal not going through, Tammy Baney, who was appointed as chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission by Governor Kate Brown, has ensured the funds will be well-spent.

“The [contractors] don’t get all the funding at once,” she says. “If the facilities don’t meet certain standards, that funding could go away.”

Projections by a private third party assessor show the facilities could increase transportation efficiency enough to grow the onion market by nearly 20%.

For those whose livelihoods might depend on the success of the intermodal facilities, failure to deliver doesn’t seem to be an option. Linn County has already sunk $750,000 of its own development funds into the project.

Linn County Commissioner Roger Nyquist says the facility will create jobs and increase efficiency in the area.

“Has this project taken a lot of time and effort? Sure it has,” he said in an interview with the Corvallis Gazette-Times. “But in the end, it’s worth pursuing with all our vigor.

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