Wyden, Merkley, DeFazio call for rail resolution

Three members of Oregon's congressional delegation are pushing a federal transportation board to pick up the pace in resolving a conflict that has shut down the rail line between Ashland and Weed, Calif.

The Coos-Siskiyou Shippers Coalition and the Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad, a short line operated by RailAmerica of Jacksonville, Fla., have been at odds since 2007. That's when CORP shut down the Coos Line and curtailed operations on the Siskiyou Line south of Ashland. Eventually, the Port of Coos Bay obtained the Coos Line, but CORP has not run traffic over the Siskiyou Summit into California since May 2008.

Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley joined Rep. Peter DeFazio in pushing for the Surface Transportation Board to act on a dispute that has lingered for more than two years. On Wednesday, the trio signed off on a letter to newly confirmed STB Chairman Daniel R. Elliott III urging him to take action.

They point out that the Coos-Siskiyou Shippers Coalition met a March 31 deadline for its most recent submission in the matter, but has seen no progress on the issue.

"It has been nearly nine months since the Coalition submitted the requisite information to demonstrate the inadequacy of that service," the Oregon delegation wrote. "We urge you to move as quickly as possible to rule fairly on the (CSSC's) petition."

The letter, dated Wednesday, reminded Elliott of his stated commitment during his confirmation hearings to address shipper's disputes with rail companies.

"The reduction in service and increased rates forced shippers along the Siskiyou Line to switch from rail transportation to trucks, which is more expensive than rail service," the elected officials wrote. "Reliable and affordable railroad service is critical to the well-being of rural business and economies in Oregon. Often rail is the only affordable transportation option for timber, manufacturing, and industrial businesses... . The continuing uncertainty surrounding the future of the Siskiyou Line also creates difficulties for businesses in the region to plan for the future."

Bob Ragon, spokesman for the Coos-Siskiyou Shippers, said a favorable decision from the transportation board could lead to reopening the line between Weed and Ashland by early spring.

"We might be operational by March," Ragon said. "That would mean putting a crew together, finding engines and getting mobilized. I have no idea how many cases those people are handling and it's a pretty complicated decision. But the timetable is favorable.

"Our best hope is to have a little heat put on (the STB)," Ragon said. "The issue is not how they should rule, but let's have a decision."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

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