State wants railroad trial heard outside Roseburg

ROSEBURG — The state wants a jury outside Douglas County to hear a civil suit filed by the Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad over the planned Winchester rail switching yard.

The new switchyard would allow the railroad to operate shorter trains and cut the wait for motorists at Roseburg rail crossings. Ongoing anger by area residents blocked at railroad crossings in Roseburg, along with extensive media coverage of the Oregon Department of Transportation's cancellation of a $7.7 million grant for the rail switching yard at Winchester, makes it impossible for the state to receive a fair trial, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Donohue wrote in his motion filed Monday in Douglas County Circuit Court.

"In this case, the court should grant the state's motion for (a) change of venue because ... an impartial jury cannot be impaneled in Douglas County," Donohue wrote in his two-page motion.

He asked that the trial be moved to either Lane County or Marion County, saying residents in those two cities have been exposed to far less media coverage of the situation than those in Douglas County.

Donohue said that local leaders, including Roseburg City Manager Eric Swanson, state Rep. Tim Freeman, a former member of the Roseburg City Council, and Debbie Fromdahl, executive director of the Roseburg Area Chamber of Commerce, had also spoken out publicly to criticize the grant cancellation.

The Roseburg-based railroad is arguing that the state took away the grant in retaliation for CORP's closure of the Coos Bay line in September 2007. The closure forced shippers along the 111-mile line to use more expensive trucks for shipping. In some instances, American Bridge on Bolon Island outside Reedsport is not able to ship items at all because they're too large for trucks.

The state has argued that the reason the railroad was given the grant was to improve infrastructure and add job opportunities throughout the entire CORP system, including the Coos Bay line. When that line was shut down, it took away those possibilities in that area and was a violation of the grant agreement, Donohue argued last week in a pretrial hearing.

In his motion for a change of venue, Donohue argued against bringing a jury to Roseburg from a neighboring county, saying those people could be affected by the crossing blockages.

"The foreign jury could be stopped by the same train Roseburg citizens face each day and could arrive at the trial each morning frustrated by the delay," he wrote.

The blockages have "an extremely inconvenient impact" on traffic in the Roseburg area, he said.

Local media coverage, he said, portrays local leaders as being highly critical of the state's decision to pull funding. He said The News-Review has written editorials blasting the state for removing the funding and for "playing politics" in the decision.

He said the newspaper failed to criticize the railroad for its decision to eliminate the Coos Bay service, even though the newspaper has in fact written many stories on that situation and has also written editorials criticizing the railroad for shutting the line down.

Circuit Judge Randy Garrison scheduled a hearing on the change of venue request for Feb. 2. A Feb. 23 trial date has been set.

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