Bringing Rail Service to Port of "Foresighted"

Posted on Dec 22, 2015

Moses Lake Railroad"This county has a history of being foresighted," says Port of Moses Lake Executive Director Jeffery Bishop. "We're reaping the benefits today because someone stuck their neck out." He cites the Columbia River dams, buying the airport from the government, and building the fiber optic network in the county.

Now Bishop and the Port of Moses Lake are working on what Bishop hopes is another farsighted project that will reap benefits in the future: bringing rail service to the Grant County Airport.

It won't be easy, says Bishop. "It's very very very complicated." The Washington State legislature has allocated $20.9 million over three bienniums, or six years. But this biennium, they only authorized $1 million. Getting the rest of the money, Bishop says, is dependent on the state being in good financial health in the future and being able to issue the bonds necessary to acquire the funds.

Bishop says the first stage of the project, acquiring permits, is in "good shape" since that process was started in 2009. The only part not permitted is building a new bridge over Crab Creek. But, Bishop explains, only 40% of the line is designed and they need to hire an engineer to design the rest.

Proposed Future Rail to Port of Moses LakeThe proposed new rail line is in three segments. The first, which is in the Wheeler corridor, would be new line that would be built on new right-of-way. But that requires getting the right-of-way from property owners. Segment two is also new line, but that would be built near the airport and most of that land is already owned by the Port. Finally, the third segment is existing line owned by Columbia Basin Railroad that runs parallel to Highway 17. That would need to be purchased or leased from CBRR. Also, it needs rehabilitating and, according to Bishop, there's not enough money to bring it up to the standard they would like and that the other two segments would have. That will be a bottleneck because it will slow down rail traffic on that segment.

Another aspect of the project is that it would allow the rail line in downtown Moses Lake to be abandoned. However, if the Port can't get the right-of-way for segment one, Bishop says, the rail line will have to remain through Moses Lake.

Another problem the Port is facing, Bishop says, is there's no way to design, permit, and get right-of-way for the $1 million the state allocated this biennium. So the Port secured a line of credit with Umpqua Commercial Bank in Moses Lake "so we can go further," Bishop explains. "If we don't, we won't get it done in time."

The rail line has to be completed by 2019 because that's when the federal government's Surface Transportation Board authorization expires. That permitting was done in 2009 and lasts ten years.

And, the money the legislature allocated is not enough to do the project "as envisioned," Bishop explains.

But, says Bishop, it is worth it because the rail line to the airport will benefit Grant County. Many businesses that might come to the county and may locate at the Port will want rail access. According to Bishop, when Boeing was looking at building the 787 in Moses Lake, lack of rail access was a "huge strike" against it. "It provides another source of transportation that is cost effective," Bishop explains. He says "lots of companies" at the port could make use of it, now. When the port slowdown happened, SGL was shipping out product by air, Bishop explains. If rail were available, says Bishop, they could have shipped it by rail to another port such as Houston, and saved a lot of money. "Transportation is a three-legged stool," Bishop says, with air, trucking, and rail, "and we've been on a stool with two legs."

"We're very grateful for the leadership Senator Warnick displayed," Bishop says. "She battled hard to make sure this was in the budget." It was, Bishop adds, "A very farsighted thing."

"We may not see the return on the investment for a long time, but our children will," Bishop concludes.