ROYAL CITY - Now that ARG Transportation Services of Eugene, Ore. has decided not to operate the Royal Slope Railroad, the Port of Royal Slope is asking the state to give control of the short line to the Port.
Last week, Senate Bill 5529, sponsored by Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake and which returns ownership of the 26 mile state-owned railroad tracks to Port of Royal Slope, cleared the Senate by a lopsided 47-1 vote.
The legislation gives the Port five years to contract an operator for the rail line and gives supplies from the recent rehabilitation projects, paid for by the state Department of Transportation, to the Port.
"We greatly appreciate all the hard work Senator Warnick has put in to getting this legislation passed," said Port Commissioner Alan Schrom. "We're excited and looking forward to restoring safe, reliable and sustainable rail service to Royal City."
But, according to Port Executive Director Cathy Potter, control of the rail line was not a done deal as of last Friday. A similar bill still had to pass a House vote, and Potter had no idea when that may occur.
The reason the Port wants to take over is to speed up the process of finding an operator. Waiting for the Department of Transportation to do that this time around seemed like eons to Port commissioners.
"The Port felt we could not move forward with WSDOT in control," Potter said. "They are a large bureaucracy with many departments that had to give their permission for every step we've taken."
"The Port had to step aside and watch all of our efforts go to waste," Potter added. "Besides that, they didn't have the staff or funding to handle this project. They have larger projects they need to manage."
According to ARG President Scott Parkinson, ARG's five-month study of the potential business on the Royal Slope turned up only 200 rail cars of cargo annually. He said the company would need 750 to break even.
ARG operates railroads in Oregon and Arizona but nothing in Washington. If it had operations in Washington, Potter said, it could have shared equipment and staff, reducing the number of rail cars needed to make it feasible to operate the line.
Parkinson said ARG was simply too optimistic when it offered to run the Royal Slope line. Some of the problems they knew from the beginning were too great to overcome.
ARG would have had to use the Columbia Basin Railroad short line at Othello to get to the main BNSF line. CBR would have needed to be paid for that.
Parkinson said the solution for the Port is to talk the CBR into operating the Royal Slope Line. But that will be tough, he said, based discussions ARG officials had with the CBR about the possibility.
"They weren't interested," he said. "Anything that comes off the slope will have to use their line anyway."
As things stand now, Royal Slope shippers who want to use rail would likely truck their products to Othello and use the CBR.
One reason the Port wants to get control of the line now owned by the Department of Transportation is that the Port had interest from another rail operator who was close enough to be able to share equipment with his other operations.
"He felt he could start operating with only a few hundred rail cars and build up the service," Potter said. "He understood that we needed to have a train pull up here before we have believers again."
Schrom and Potter went to Olympia to testify in favor of the bills in front of the Senate Transportation Committee on Feb. 2 and the House Transportation Committee on Feb. 4.
"There was no one testifying against the bills," Potter said.
The Port's lobbyist has kept the Port informed of what is happening with these bills.
"We found out last week that HB 1586 passed out of the House Transportation Committee to the Rules Committee," Potter said.