Port of Centralia, Chehalis Clash on Rail Issues

By Dameon Pesanti, May 20, 2014, Centralia Chronicle

Representatives of the Port of Centralia and Genesee & Wyoming Inc. say they are planning to work together in an effort to make train traffic flow more efficiently from Centralia to Grays Harbor, but Chehalis and Lewis County officials say the lack of transparency around the application has them worried.

At the heart of the conflict is a $9 million federal grant to improve train traffic on short line rail systems.

The Port of Centralia and Genesee & Wyoming are applying for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER,  grant, to make improvements to Blakeslee Junction through Aberdeen on the Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad line, which is owned by the short line rail company Genesee & Wyoming.

The grant would pay a little more than $9 million and    Genesee & Wyoming would pay about $3.8 million. No local money is required. The plan is endorsed by Gov. Jay Inslee, Sixth District Congressman Derek Kilmer, the Department of Defense, several Washington cities and numerous companies.

While the grant outlines the benefits to transporting brewers grain, soybean meal and automotive parts eventually, the line would also become key in moving oil to three facilities planned for the Port of Hoquiam.

“This (grant) has nothing to do with oil trains,” said Port of Centralia Executive Director Kyle Heaton. “There are no mentions of oil in the TIGER application, but frankly there are worse things they’re hauling than oil right now. ”

For now, though, the grant is straining the relationship between the port and the city of Chehalis and Lewis County, which are jointly pursuing a plan to purchase a section of separate rail line from the city of Tacoma.

In light of recent rail accidents, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, recently urged U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to increase safety resources on short line railways.

The SP&P needs to be repaired. Within 16 days, three trains derailed on the line, AND now the Federal Railroad Administration is going to investigate the causes.

The money would improve the tracks and bridges, allow trains to travel at a higher rate of speed, make room for trains to pull off the main line for others to pass and create quite zones within Centralia.

The port will benefit from the grant improvements because the trains often block truck access to some of its property, according to Heaton. The port will also receive $50,000 for handling the application.

Chehalis Mayor Dennis Dawes is worried that the port plans on buying the the same piece of railway the city of Chehalis has been working to purchase, along with Lewis County, from the city of Tacoma.

Now, because city officials say they haven’t received an answer in person, they are asking in writing.

“I’m not trying to get into a contest with any other government agency. I just want to make sure we don’t have anything happening behind us,” Dawes said during the Chehalis City Council meeting on May 12. “It can be just a clear yes or no answer.”

Heaton said that not only are Chehalis’ fears completely unfounded, but the city’s plans could be bad news for Centralia. Heaton speculates that if Chehalis and Lewis County purchase the track, they’d use it to store train cars in Centralia.

“Lewis County and the city of Chehalis claim it’s all about local control, but yet they want to control track in other municipalities,” he said. “They’d supplant one tyrant with another, that’s all this is. That’s reality,”

The city of Chehalis and Lewis County are currently in a three-year agreement with Tacoma to potentially purchase the Tacoma Rail line between Chehalis and Maytown. According to Lewis County Commissioner Bill Schulte, the county would be the main owner of the track, but Chehalis would have a say in its operations, as would Centralia, if it chooses to opt into the deal.

Schulte said the purchase would give the local governments greater control over train operating hours and the opportunity to profit from car storage and shipping and transloading.

He said there wouldn’t be cars stored in Centralia.

“What you have from Kyle Heaton is an attempt to poison the water between municipalities,” said Lewis County Commissioner Bill Schulte.

In the future, the improved track would be used by trains hauling Bakken oil from the booming fields of North Dakota, Heaton said. However, there is no mention of oil trains in the TIGER Grant. Oil trains will use the rail if the two Grays Harbor shipping terminals are approved. If they are built, Genesee & Wyoming stands to profit by charging the shipping companies for using their track.

Dawes says he’s fine with the improvements written into the grant but worries about language he believes would allow the Port of Centralia to buy the rail. He said Chehalis officials have not seen confirmation or denial of the possibility.

“That’s the part that I’m concerned about,” Dawes said. “Our plans for that part of the rail are completely different than what their plans would be.”

Heaton said the TIGER grant would impact only the track owned by Genesee & Wyoming, not the Tacoma Rail line. He also said the grant funds couldn’t be used to purchase the Tacoma line.

Schulte has a hard time taking Heaton at his word. He said the county and the port have a history of bad blood, and without seeing the grant application for himself, he has difficulty trusting the port’s motives.

“They ask for us to accept the presentation on face … I want to make sure we deconflict,” he said. “I’d love to further any kind of economic development Lewis County but we need to work together.”

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