082317-adh-nws-IP Mill Site-my (copy)

An aerial view of the former International Paper site in Millersburg. The property is being proposed for state funding as the site of an intermodal freight-handling facility to serve the mid-valley.

Former Rep. Andy Olson of Albany was a member of a joint legislative committee that toured the state a few years back, getting a feel for transportation issues and paving the way for a major funding package that passed the Legislature in 2017.

During his travels, he learned of plans to place a so-called intermodal transportation facility in Nyssa in eastern Oregon. The facility would be a spot where semitrucks would deliver shipping containers for loading onto railroad cars for the remainder of their journey. The idea is to make shipping more efficient and to reduce traffic on busy interstate highways.

Olson was intrigued — and thought he knew of a site in his district that would be ideal for a similar facility in the mid-valley: The 190-acre site of the former International Paper mill in Millersburg, which has sat empty for a decade now since the mill's closure.

Late last week, that idea took a big step forward, as the Oregon Transportation Commission decided to provide $25 million in Connect Oregon funds (money that was allocated in that 2017 transportation bill) to develop that transportation hub in Millersburg. (The commission also OK'd $26 million to develop that facility near Nyssa.)

The commission, at a meeting Thursday, eliminated the other major competitor for the mid-valley project, a proposed site near Brooks; the commissioners were worried that the Brooks project did not appear to have a clear commitment from a railroad that would serve the site and the land in question is zoned for exclusive farm use.

But that doesn't mean that the commission members were particularly enthusiastic about the Millersburg site, and the reasons for their reluctance will bear continued scrutiny as the project moves forward.

In general, the members of the commission (who seemed at one point last week to be leaning toward rejecting both proposals) worry about the financial viability of the Millersburg site and expressed concerns that the site would require substantial public subsidies for years going forward. 

And those are fair concerns, although developers of the Millersburg site are convinced that the project will pay off in the long run. (Linn County commissioners already are committed to providing up to $500,000 per year for the next five years to support the project's operating budget.) The idea is that the Millersburg site eventually will develop into an industrial park (mid-valley businesses already have expressed interest in the site) that would add hundreds of jobs to the mid-valley's workforce.

That would be great — and if the intermodal hub is successful at generating business and reducing semitruck traffic on Interstate 5 and in the Portland area, that would also be great.

But it's not as if the Oregon Transportation Commission is going to cut a check for $25 million and wash its hands of the project. The commission is moving toward including performance mandates in its contract with the backers of the Millersburg site, and payments of the funds will hinge to some extent on how the project meets those mandates. And it sounds like commission members want to take another hard look at solid, real-world railroad hauling rates to be sure that the project makes economic sense.

And if it seems as if the commission has taken its time making its decision on the projects — well, that's because it has. But we're impressed by the thoroughness with which the commission members have approached this task; after all, even by state standards, $25 million still adds up to a lot of money, and it was well within the commission's mandate to make sure this was a good investment. And we suspect that the commission's insistence that project backers go back and sharpen their pencils made for better proposals. 

We remain optimistic about the prospects for this Millersburg project. But we understand that it's still a bit of a gamble, and it will bear close watching for years to come. To that end, we thank the people who have done so much work to this point on this project. And we encourage them to be as transparent as possible with the public as this project takes shape — because, after all, $25 million of taxpayers' money is at stake. (mm)

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