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Railway proposal gives hope for local businesses

Rail cars loading at Pacific Abrasives in Grand Forks; Photo, Mona Mattei

A glimmer of light is indeed at the end of the tunnel for the railway serving Grand Forks and northwest Washington. A proposal developed by a collaboration between the railway operators, OmniTrax, and the users of the line including International Forest Products Ltd. (Interfor), Pacific Abrasives, International Reload Systems and Columbia Cedar, was presented to local and regional government last week outlining a way to keep the line operating. 

Grand Forks Mayor Brian Taylor, who has been a self-proclaimed pessimist about the possibility of saving the line, said that he is now confident that there is a way to keep it open. "What they've worked out with OmniTrax is that if we can fix the infrastructure they (the shippers) can come to an operating agreement that is sufficient revenue to continue to operate the rail at agreed levels. As shippers they feel they can produce enough volume, as long as they buy into the volume."

Taylor said that the shippers would essentially pay based on an agreed volume and if they do not use the volume of railcars, they would still be responsible for paying the agreed amount. "They're confident that they can find that formula with OmniTrax to keep it operational for all of them."

The hitch is finding the funding to repair the infrastructure that has not been replaced over the years as a result of the low volumes of traffic. Taylor plans to take the proposal to the next levels of government to find some way to support the plan.

"We have the economic impact study clearly showing millions of dollars of damage that's going to happen if we have to go down the route of trucking the products out of here. Plus not even operating. Now we can go to the province with something that says, with a reasonable amount of public input into the upgrading, there is a deal behind this that would be economically viable."

In the fall of 2008 OmniTrax, the operators of the Kettle Falls International Railway, provided notice to the Canadian users that they were planning to abandon the line. Since then local businesses who will be significantly impacted by the loss of the rail line have been working with local government representatives to try to prevent the line from closing. The economic study completed in October 2009 highlighted the significant impact that the closure would have on businesses, jobs and the community if abandonment occurs. 

"Obviously if we're going to put money into it as Canadians or British Columbians, because I don't see municipal money going into this, we need to get something out of it - there needs to be strings attached. You can't just give people money," stated Taylor.

Taylor said that on the American side of the border the issue is mostly focused on maintaining the potential for future development as there are not many users on the line south of Cascade in Christina Lake. But he said that there are granting programs in Washington that make the opportunity possible.

"On the American side what their looking at is saving the rail for the sake of saving rails. Because the economic impact is there but not to the extent that it is up here. We're fighting for economic survival," explained Taylor. "Down there I think it's more a philosophical push to keep rail infrastructure in place for future development."

In the United States Senator Morton has been involved in saving the line and Taylor said Morton will be assisting the group on the Washington side.

Next steps? Taylor said he'll be taking the case forward with MLA John Slater and ministries within the provincial government to see what might be possible to support the funding of the infrastructure repairs on the Canadian side of the border. He is confident now that, with the support of local business people, the Boundary Economic Development Committee, and Community Futures Boundary, the case can be heard.

"If we're going to do this it's got to be community involvement. There's got to be some people coming forward championing the cause, it can't just be politicians. Hopefully there will be some businesses in town too because there are implications for all of us. If we lose the rail, and we lose Interfor because of it - what will that turn us into as a town?" said Taylor.