The Port of Tillamook Bay is interested in turning part of the county’s railroad line into a pedestrian and bicycle path – while still keeping local excursion trains running.
While other communities have tackled “rails-to-trails” projects, the Port is looking at whether it’s possible to do both rails and trails.
No study has yet been launched to determine whether a project is possible or a good fit for Tillamook’s rail line. But Port of Tillamook Bay Manager Michele Bradley said the board does want to work with the Oregon Department of Forestry, Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation and Cycle Oregon to determine whether a trails project would suit the area.
“That could really be a boon here at the coast, having a trail all the way along Highway 101, basically from Wheeler,” Bradley said. “If we could make it all work, it would be fantastic. And not a dime would come out of the Port’s pocket for this.”
Though, exactly how the trail would be funded remains unknown.
“How do you pay for this? What is the scope, scale, time frame?” said ODF State Forester Doug Decker.
“This is all unknown – this is really earlier than the early stages,” he said. “There’s an opportunity, a potential here.”
Decker was invited by the Port to discuss the rails-to-trails project because the Department of Forestry owns much of the surrounding forest through which the railroad passes.
Once hauling freight six days a week from Tillamook to Hillsboro, the Port stopped operating its rail cars in December 2007 after a major storm took out portions of the rail line. In lieu of restoring use of the rail line, the Port received nearly $44 million in alternate project funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In May, a group of about 15 citizens appeared at a Port meeting, asking the Port to consider a rails-to-trails project. The idea was brought to the Port board again this month, by Economic and Small Business Development Director Dan Biggs. Recently, the Port board agreed to move forward discussing the idea.
“If it is feasible, we’ll be able to bring thousands of bikers, even more than we already do, down to the coast,” Biggs said. “If we can get the cyclists off 101, the safety is better, and all these people will be stopping, eating in local restaurants, staying in local motels. We can attract people from around the world.”
Just over a year ago, a $1.4 million rails-to-trails project was finished in nearby Banks, in Washington County.
Completed in October 2010, the car-free trail links Banks to Vernonia through forests and fields, along 21 miles of abandoned rail line. The rail ties have been removed and replaced by a paved path. Users pass over 12 bridges and a 600-foot-long, 80-foot-high railroad trestle. Decker believes there is potential to connect the Banks trail to Tillamook County.
“One of the things that intrigued me about the project is the potential to link across the Coast Range, to create a rural and urban connection,” he said.
But in Tillamook County, the track is not completely unused. The Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad operates a passenger steam train from Garibaldi to Rockaway Beach and, on special occasions, to Wheeler.
The Port owns the 101 miles of rail line and its right-of-way, which is the 15 to 200 feet of area surrounding the track. But it is in the end stages of negotiating a contract with OCSR for rights to a portion of the track.
That portion is 48 miles of rail line, from the Port to Enright, high in the Salmonberry Canyon. It certainly includes a portion of the area along Highway 101 targeted for a walking and cycling path.
“Basically, we would be the operator of the rail line,” said Scott Wickert, OCSR President, referring to pending contract with the Port. “We would assume all liability concerning the track, all liability with train operations and assume responsibility for all federal requirements.”
Bradley said she expects the Port to reach an agreement with OCSR in the next week. But she also believes there is room for both passenger trains and a rails-to-trails-type project in Tillamook County.
“Typically, with a rails-to-trails project, the rail goes away,” Bradley said. “But the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad is such an economic draw to Tillamook County. If we could do a dual rail and trail, that would be the best because then we don’t lose either of those economic attributes.”
One idea is to build a path alongside a portion of the rail line right-of-way, rather than to remove the rails themselves.
Wickert said he doesn’t see a problem with building a car-free path along a portion of the rail line, as long as the rails are not replaced by the path.
“I think taking the tracks out completely would be an extremely poor decision,” Wickert said. “We’re bringing in a for-sure tourism base and I think it would be a really bad thing, especially for Garibaldi and Rockaway Beach.”
Wickert said the historic train excursions brought 13,000 riders to the county this year.
“Those people eat, buy gas, stay at local hotels,” he said. “Our ridership is just going to keep on increasing.”
Decker emphasized that the rails-to-trails idea is still in the early steps in the timeline.
“I understand it’s a huge undertaking, a massive task,” he said. “The next steps would be a meeting in the new year with the organizations that the Port has invited to the table, to begin to think about what a (feasibility) study might look like.”