Union Pacific wants to extend a 1.5-mile siding, or pullout lane, in Mosier by two miles on either side, enabling trains to bypass each other without stopping. The project would cost $25 million.
Now, trains pull off in Mosier, and sit idling, waiting for an oncoming train to pass. Extending the siding, or bypass lane, would eliminate “the biggest bottleneck in the Northwest,” UP spokesman Brock Nelson told a crowd of nearly 30 in Mosier Dec. 10.
UP has filed permit applications with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and a Corps spokesman said it would realistically be over a year before a decision was made.
In the next couple of weeks, UP hopes to file permit applications with Wasco County.
The siding in Mosier is so short, Nelson said, that today’s longer trains can’t even pull over there, but rather must use two longer sidings that are 10 miles in either direction of Mosier.
That creates a 20-mile gap where trains have to wait for oncoming traffic, Nelson said.
Right now, trains stop and idle right outside a group of condos on the east end of Mosier. “That’s going to go away,” Nelson said. “I consider this a positive for folks in Mosier,” he said of the project.
The point where trains brake to enter and exit the siding would be moved two miles from town in either direction. The new track would be added to the north side of the existing track, all of which is on the south side of Interstate 84 as it goes through Mosier. It would be 12 to 15 months of construction, and will add 15 to 20 feet of new embankment to the existing track.
The new track would be almost exclusively on railroad property. Temporary easements will be needed from other property owners for construction.
The extended rail bed will mean the loss of an unofficial trail now used by locals that runs parallel to the existing siding. “It’s too close to the tracks; it’s not a safe place to be,” Nelson said.
The city of Mosier and UP are discussing mitigation options that could mean improvements for other areas of Mosier.
One thought is deepening the lake between the tracks and the freeway to allow kayaking, said Mayor Andrea Rogers, and providing a trail around the lake.
Federal money has already been spent expanding Mosier’s waterfront trail and creating access to it under the railroad.
Bypassing trains will each be going the current track speed of about 30 mph, Nelson said. The bypass lane will mean an additional five to seven trains a day will pass, on top of the current 25 to 30 trains per day.
To limit how much fill will be needed for the added tracks where they will go along the river, UP is not adding its customary maintenance road that would also go along the tracks.
The railroad is asking to have access to the project off Interstate 84 at both ends of the project. That would involve temporary lane closures on the freeway.
He said the railroad’s goal is to do the project as “quietly, efficient and safely as we can and we’ll do our level best to limit impacts in town.” Some heavy-truck traffic in town will be unavoidable.
A permit to put fill by the river must come from the Corps of Engineers. Peter Olmstead, the Corps’ project manager for this project, said review criteria include water impacts and public interest impacts.
Public interest impacts would include recreation, access and noise, he said.
There are public comment periods for the permit processes at both the Corps and Wasco County.
He asked that comments be specific, and not just “’we hate the railroad.’ There’s not much we can do with that.”
He said their work is a balancing act of weighing the benefits vs. detriments of the project.
Angie Brewer, senior planner for Wasco County’s planning department, said the county’s review of the project, which falls under Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area rules, would consider impacts to scenic, natural, cultural and recreational resources.
Typically such decisions are handled administratively, but this will be taken before the county’s planning commission where a public hearing will be held to better facilitate public comment.
Brewer said any impacts to protected resources from the rail project would have to pass the “no practical alternative test.”
Kristy Beachamp, emergency manager for Wasco County Emergency Services, said there was “very limited” local response capabilities to a major hazmat incident. It is more economical to have such resources concentrated in certain areas, from which they then respond to incidents. The closest responders to Mosier are in Gresham. She encouraged residents to make plans for an emergency, such as knowing evacuation routes.
Nelson said the railroad was financially liable for cleaning up an incident. He noted stores of cleanup equipment, such as booms to contain spills and foam to quell fire, are placed throughout the gorge.
Peter Cornelison of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge asked what was driving the need for “more volume and speed for the railroad. We don’t know yet,” he said. “We need full disclosure to know.”
He said Nelson told the Friends late spring that no unit trains of oil were going up the Oregon side of the Gorge, but a week later, a citizen took a picture of an oil train and Nelson admitted he didn’t know about it. “That kind of shook our confidence in what we’re hearing from Union Pacific.”
Nelson said the train was an “anomaly” and he recounted that he’d actually told Friends there’d be no oil trains “currently.”
Cornelison worried about oil from the tar sands of Utah being transported. It’s not the “explosive” Bakken crude from Wyoming – on which the flammability rating is being changed to the highest category. Rather, the tar sand oil is heavy and sinks, making cleanup difficult. He noted some species have never recovered from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.
He said oil by rail has seen a “pretty much exponential” 8,000-percent increase since 2006. Currently, 19 oil trains a week are going up the Gorge on the Washington side.
He said, “who pays for a catastrophic oil spill? We do.” He said railroads aren’t required to have detailed oil spill response plans.
He noted the second track would run through the most sensitive land protected in the Gorge —special management area open space. It also runs through numerous other land use designations. “It’s an area rich with scenic, natural cultural and recreational resources,” he said.
Nelson said the extended siding would allow the railroad to better serve current customers.
He said the railroad has no plans currently to transport oil. “This is not all about coal and crude.” He said oil represents just 1 percent of the railroad’s business.
One commenter said they heard railroads were so powerful their permit requests were expedited and they were above many jurisdictions. “Not for us,” said Olmstead of the Corps.
“It’s not a guarantee we’re going to authorize this project.”
Brewer, of Wasco County, said, “They’re subject to (national scenic area) requirements.”
Michael Turaski, with the Corps, said there’s a notion that government should be somewhat limited in regulation powers when dealing with private property. The same goes for the railroad, he said.
Nelson said no one talks about how green rail roads are, saying they are fuel efficient and working to be even more so and they eliminate the need for trucks on the road.
Because trains won’t be slowing and accelerating into and out of the siding now, it will also save fuel.