Hales, railroads disagree over proposed trail to Astoria

Update: After this piece ran – we’d held it a week to wait for Hales’s response, the brief email below – we got a call from the candidate to clarify that he disagrees with the railroads’ assessment that a shared rail-trail right-of-way is impossible, and that he supports a rail-to-trail conversion west of Port Westward and a complete trail from Portland to Astoria. See below.

astoria railroadPortland mayoral candidate Charlie Hales faces serious railroad opposition over a key talking point in his campaign pitch to bicyclists.

For at least eight months, Hales has been proposing a “100-mile” river-level cycle path down the Columbia River “all the way to Astoria” as an example of the sort of “iconic” bike project he thinks the city should devote resources to supporting. If built, it’d be a spectacular ride, and a keystone of bike touring in the Pacific Northwest – the only off-road bicycling link between Portland and the Oregon coast.

“I haven’t talked to anybody about this one yet,” Hales told BikePortland last winter, but the railroad that currently runs along the river is “hardly used,” he said. He described a bike path as the way to awaken the economies of towns that have “slept” since the timber industry “went into its terminal decline.”

Hales has continued to repeat his call to put a riverside bike path on the railroad’s state-owned right-of-way. He’s mentioned it twice in discussions with Portland Afoot and in an interview with OPB.

The only problem: The railroad actually carries 20,000 cars a year and supports more than 1,000 jobs along the river, including brand-new plasticboard and ethanol plants. The company that owns the rights to operate trains on the track calls it one of the most valuable spurs in its system and says it wouldn’t shut down the route for any price.

“Oh, yeah, we would not want to convert that,” said David Anzur, marketing director for Portland & Western Railroad, in an interview last week. “It’s too valuable.”

Anzur said there’s no room for both bike path and train tracks, and even if there were, the company wouldn’t be willing to expose itself to liability by sharing the space.

“There’s a lot of places where it’s river and it’s railroad and either cliff or rock,” said Anzur, who was, like PNWR CEO James Irvin, unfamiliar with Hales’s plan for their track. Although the state owns the land beneath the track, Anzur and Irvin called the railroad’s right to operate the track an “interstate commerce issue” that would require federal action to remove and would be fiercely defended by the company.

In a separate interview last week, Oregon Department of Transportation rail planner Bob Melbo said the river railroad is essential to the region’s current and future economy. “I don’t think Mr. Hales is aware of the traffic out there, but there’s a lot of use,” he said.

halesWe asked the Hales campaign to respond. The candidate’s full response, by email:

I’ve consulted with national rails to trails and national railroad experts and it is completely doable to do a rails and trails as far as Port Westward. The right of way is owned by the people of the state of Oregon.

Port Westward, an industrial site about 60 miles north of Portland, is near the heart of the relatively job-rich area fed by Portland and Western’s railroad, and the proposed site of a proposed coal export terminal that Hales opposes.

Whether or not Hales is right that a bike trail could share any of its route with the train line – and the railroad in question would certainly disagree – Port Westward is also 40 miles from Astoria, and 50 miles from the Oregon coast.

Update: Hales calls to say he’s still in full support of a river trail to Astoria and the coast, and to dispute Portland and Western’s claim that it would be impossible for bikes and trains to share the route peacefully.

“I love it when the first reaction is, ‘Hey, that’s crazy, that’ll never work.’” Hales said. “I’ve heard that before. … The first answer from railroads is almost always no.”

Hales said “the real experts I’ve talked to” persuade him that the viable solution would be a complete rails-to-trail conversion west of Port Westward to Astoria, and a shared right-of-way along the river, with necessary construction, south of Port Westward to Portland.

Hales said state railroad planners, such as Melbo, “never met a train track they didn’t like,” and that railroad experts overestimate the risk of running a bike trail along a railroad track.

“I know these guys, I love these guys, we agree on a lot of stuff, but they have a point of view that is very train-centric,” Hales said. “We’ve now proven that such a thing is possible and everybody lives.”

Needless to say, Portland and Western railroad officials seem to disagree with Hales’s stated plan – at least for now.

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