SALEM — Although far from a walk-off home run, the Oregon Transportation Commission's long-awaited decision to provide $25 million in Connect Oregon funds for development of an intermodal transportation facility in Millersburg was welcomed Thursday with big grins and hugs by local backers.
No one in the room was happier than Roger Nyquist, chairman of the Linn County Board of Commissioners, who has pursued the project for almost two years.
“This is definitely a good day,” he said after shaking hands with commission members. “A lot of people have done a lot of work to get to this point. We have a great team in place and I’m confident we can address all of the concerns raised today.”
Deliberations took about three hours — including a one-hour executive session — and at times seemed to teeter toward rejection of both proposed mid-valley projects. A project in the Marion County town of Brooks was eventually eliminated, leaving only the Millersburg project, which is proposed for the 190-acre former International Paper site that has sat empty for about 10 years.
Intermodal projects allow tractor-trailers to deliver shipping containers to designated sites, where they are then loaded onto railroad cars. The goal is to reduce traffic on Interstate 5 and especially in the Portland area, while reducing carbon emissions.
The Brooks project was eliminated for two primary reasons: Backers do not appear to have a clear commitment from at least one of three railroads that might serve the site and the property is zoned exclusive farm use.
Commission members were not convinced backers could get the property rezoned for industrial use in a reasonable time frame — if ever — even though the project would benefit agricultural users.
But the Linn Economic Development Group, which will own the Millersburg property once it is purchased for $10 million from International Paper, won’t get the entire $25 million in one big check. In fact, they may not get any money at all, if they cannot provide the commissioners with solid, real-world railroad hauling rates.
Both Brooks and Millersburg project backers provided more financial information to the commission on July 12, and that information was reviewed by commission members and the Tioga Group, independent transportation consultants. That information was also discussed in depth during executive session because it is proprietary. But commissioners still had questions.
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After eliminating the Brooks project, commission Vice Chair Robert Van Brocklin said he was not prepared to vote on the Millersburg site, calling it “too close to call.” He suggested the group get answers to the railroad rate question and make a decision at the commission’s next meeting in August in Ashland.
But commission Chair Tammy Baney said she wanted to move the process toward a yes or no decision. In addition to Van Brocklin and Baney, commission members are Julie Brown, Alando Simpson and Martin Callery.
Like Van Brocklin, Callery voiced strong concerns about the Millersburg project's economic viability.
“I believe the Millersburg project is somewhat more viable than the Brooks project, but I have real economic concerns that it will function without some form of subsidy, whether that comes from the county or state,” he said.
The Linn County Board of Commissioners has already committed dedicating up to $500,000 per year for five years toward the project’s operating budget.
After considerable discussion with legal counsel, in which commission members learned they could include performance mandates in their contract with the project backers, the commissioners unanimously approved the project.
After the meeting, Baney said the process that some had believed was going to be completed six months ago “was completely transparent and bumpy. This is an important investment that will allow us to go forward and refine both projects (a similar $26 million project near Nyssa was also approved) while meeting the public interest, providing community benefits and offering economic opportunity to the state.”
Former State Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, started the project rolling nearly two years ago after learning of the Treasure Valley (Nyssa) project while touring the state and developing a long-term transportation plan.
He brought the concept to Linn County commissioners Nyquist, John Lindsey and Will Tucker.
“I’m pleased,” Olson said succinctly after the meeting.