Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Growers Association Has Plans To Save Money

Wenatchee World, 1985

The relationship between farmers and the railroads has been stormy for over a century, even though each side feels somewhat dependent on the other.

That relationship is still changing in North Central Washington, with branch lines being abandoned and growers pinning their hopes on new facilities and new grain shipping points.

Still, farmers are betting their future is in shipping their grain by rail. Their relationship with the railroads, stormy as it may be, will continue for many years to come.

The major change in rail shipping in North Central Washington came when the Burlington Northern finally shut down the Mansfield line, which ran from Mansfield down through the wheat country to the Columbia River Siding near Palisades. The last grain was shipped on that line in March.

Central Washington Grain Growers, the primary wheat cooperative in Douglas County, fought for years to keep that line open. Now that the line no longer is in use, most of the grain is being trucked from various locations in the county to Coulee City.

The cooperative has spent about $1.25 million upgrading its facilities at Coulee City, located on the Burlington Northern’s Central Washington Branch Line.

With state-of-the-art equipment, the Coulee City station can load the big hopper cars the railroad now uses to ship grain. The grain is loaded on “unit trains,” a string of more than 20 hopper cars that is loaded quickly for maximum efficiency.

So far, the system is working well, said Scotty Watson, manager of Central Washington Grain Growers. The cooperative has been able to truck grain to Coulee City that once was loaded directly from elevators into boxcars on the Mansfield Line.

“Its something we can do, and will be doing,” said Watson.

It costs about 8 cents per bushel more to ship grain to Coulee City. But with rail charges from there 4 cents per bushel less, growers now pay a total of just 4 cents per bushel more.

With truck shipments feasible, the question now is the future of the Central Washington Branch rail line. The line deadends at Coulee City, and the wheat on that line is sent almost to Spokane before it makes a U-turn and heads toward export depots on the coast.

Although there has been no indication that the railroad is planning to abandon the Central Washington Branch, the grain shippers are hoping to take steps to ensure its long-term future.

They have formed the Central Washington Branch Line Shippers Association. Members include Central Washington Grain Growers, Waterville; Graingrowers Warehouse, Wilbur; Almira Farmers Warehouse; United Grain Growers; Odessa Union; Davenport Union; and Reardon Grain Growers.

“All branch lines are subject to scrutiny by the Burlington Northern,” said John Anderson, manager of Graingrowers Warehouse. “We have no indication as of this date that they have any plan in the future (to abandon the line), but there is nothing to keep them from doing it in the future.”

The new association hopes to promote a plan to have the Central Washington Branch reconnected, with new lines from Coulee City running south to connect with the main line. That would form a loop, and shorten the distance the grain has to travel.

“It makes it a more profitable line for the Burlington Northern, if it could be done,” said Anderson.

The association hopes to obtain a grant to study the feasibility and cost of reconnecting the branch. They also hope to keep the old right of way, from Coulee City south, from being sold off and parceled out.

It has been estimated that reconnecting the line would cost about $22 million.

With or without the new project, Watson said he is confident the Central Washington Branch will be operating in the future.

“The line is much more permanent now that (sic) it was 12 months ago,” said Watson. “The railroad already has decided to make substantial improvements. I feel good about it now. They are doing more than I expected, so God bless them.”

Anderson agreed.

“They have done a pretty good amount of maintenance on this line in recent years, and service is pretty good. Those things lead you to believe it’s pretty safe. But what you always come back to is the fact that we are a branch line. On any branch line, you’d better be fearful that you are not going to keep your rail line in the long term,” he said.

In Douglas County, trucking wheat to Coulee City has proven feasible so far. The major drawback has been the deterioration of roads. Both the state Department of Transportation and county engineering departments are worried that increased truck traffic will bring increased road maintenance costs.

“We know it will have an impact. It has to have an impact,” said Duane Biggar, county public works director. “Our roads were not built to the standards that the state builds its highways.”

He said that in some spots the roads are already showing marked deterioration. Biggar noted, however, that Central Washington Grain Growers has been very cooperative in trying to limit truck traffic when roads are more vulnerable to damage, when roadbeds are soaked with water in the spring. The grain is shipped on state highways whenever possible.

Even so, the county’s financial position is such that it can’t keep up with road maintenance, with or without the truck traffic.

“We’re not satisfied, let alone the pubic” said Biggar.

He said there is no financial relief in sight. Biggar said that it may even get to the point where the county lets the roads go back to gravel and just forgets maintaining the pavement.

“Should we continue oiling when we cannot maintain what we have? Should we just go back to gravel? I’m not suggesting that, but that’s one thing that’s being considered,” said Biggar.

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