Union Pacific Railroad plans to build a second set of tracks east and west of Mosier, boosting the number of trains rolling through the Columbia River Gorge by five to seven per day, the railroad estimates.
The railroad released a proposal to build a roughly four-mile expansion from Memaloose State Park to the train tunnel at the Hood River County line.
The debate over the track extension project will come before a planning panel hearing Tuesday, Sept. 6 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles.
Wasco County Planning Commission will hear testimony from sides in favor or opposed to the project before making a recommendation on the future of U.P.’s project application.
Hood River conservation group leaders and Gorge elected officials are expected to speak at the hearing.
Railroad representatives said in their land use application to Wasco County the short siding in the Mosier area causes a “bottleneck” where trains can’t easily pass each other at normal speed.
Citing a will to remedy the situation and efficiently move freight goods through the Gorge, U.P. plans to build about 3.21 miles of new second mainline track along the Columbia River and 0.37 mile of realigned existing track.
“UPRR’s movement of freight traffic, including movement through Oregon … is an essential component of the nation’s rail delivery infrastructure, facilitating interstate commerce,” railroad representatives said in their January 2015 application.
The stretch of tracks through Mosier has the “poorest” efficiency of the entire U.P. route from Portland to Hermiston, U.P. said, which “causes ripple effects of delays and inefficient operations along the subdivision.”
U.P. moves about 25 to 30 trains per day through Mosier — one per hour if divided equally.
Plans would allow the company to move more trains through the region. The specific amount has been disputed by conservation groups, as have the safety and environmental impacts involved.
Pushback from groups has flared hotter in response to a fiery oil train derailment in Mosier in June.
That “elephant in the room,” as Friends of the Columbia Gorge put it in their written argument, bolstered animosity from groups against running fossil fuel transports through the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.
Nobody was injured in the fiery wreck that leaked 42,000 gallons of oil and caused an evacuation of most of the town.
The Federal Railroad Administration reported in late June that “Union Pacific’s failure to maintain its track and track equipment resulted in the derailment.”
“Union Pacific caused the Mosier derailment due to its negligence in maintaining its tracks,” said Steve McCoy, Friends staff attorney. “This is part of a pattern where Union Pacific has a startlingly poor safety record and has consistently lobbied against the FRA’s attempts to improve rail safety.”
Friends and Columbia Riverkeeper, among other coalition members, have opposed the track expansion project, arguing U.P. downplayed the increase in rail traffic through Mosier. Friends commissioned a report by rail industry experts that found U.P.’s project would allow double the amount of trains per day — much higher than the railroad’s estimate.
Some Columbia River tribal leaders have criticized the track project over its impact on treaty land and waterways.
“Increased traffic in Mosier generates impacts up and down the Columbia in the form of additional trains, pollution noise and risks of derailment,” wrote Jeremy Wolf, vice chairman for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Board of Trustees, on May 11.
“The Columbia Gorge is essentially a closed system for trains. If seven more trains go through Mosier, seven more trains go through Rufus, Biggs, The Dalles, Celilo, Hood River, Cascade Locks, etc.,” Wolf said.
U.P. stated the new Federal Railroad Administration speed limit on the track will be 35 mph.
The project would run mostly across U.P. property and partially on state-owned parcels, belonging to Oregon Department of Transportation and Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
The planning commission will hear arguments for and against the proposal at Tuesday’s hearing at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, 5000 Discovery Drive in The Dalles.
For more information, visit the planning department’s website: co.wasco.or.us/planning/UPRR.html.
The public is invited to attend and comment on the track extension project.
Groups will hold a rally before the meeting from 2:15 to 2:45 p.m. with speakers including: Arlene Burns, Mayor of Mosier; Laurent Picard, Portland firefighter; and other leaders from Gorge communities.
Look for coverage of the event in The Dalles Chronicle, a sister publication to the Hood River News, in print and online at www.thedalleschronicle.com.