In downtown Rainier, a small Columbia River town in Oregon where oil trains carried more than 300 million gallons of volatile crude last year, trains and traffic today share the road, creating a hazard the state soon plans to fix.
An $8.9 million project would install curbs, reconfigure parking and add designated pedestrian and vehicle crossings on A Street, allowing trains to speed up from 10 mph to 25 mph and blow their horns fewer times.
It has another key impact. Improvements would allow the number of mile-long oil trains passing through Rainier to increase from 24 monthly to 38, helping expansion plans and profits for an oil export terminal operated near Clatskanie by Massachusetts-based Global Partners.
Though regulators and Gov. John Kitzhaber acknowledge significant gaps in Oregon’s readiness for oil train accidents, the state’s first major financial commitment to safety improvements subsidizes a project allowing more oil trains.
An ongoing boom in North Dakota is pushing unprecedented amounts of oil into the country’s rail system, leading to a string of accidents that has raised safety concerns nationwide. The North Dakota crude is far more flammable than traditional crude and moves in tank cars that aren’t as safe as they could be.
Project advocates, including the governor, say improvements to crumbling A Street are overdue and will help both safety and economic development in Columbia County, where unemployment is higher than average and wages are below average.
“This is a longstanding project designed to increase safety by separating trains from vehicle and pedestrian traffic,” said Rachel Wray, a spokeswoman for Kitzhaber. “No matter what companies haul, people living along rail lines in Oregon deserve safe infrastructure in their communities.”
While the A Street project has been under consideration for years, increased oil train traffic has finally given it momentum.
Rainier Mayor Jerry Cole said he’s pushed for the upgrade — “a huge safety concern” — since he was elected more than a decade ago, only to see the state’s interest wax and wane. He understands the recent urgency. “If oil trains weren’t coming through, you wouldn’t see this project on the table,” he said.
It has attracted scrutiny from crude-by-rail opponents. If the state is going to spend millions on oil train safety, said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, it should hire more rail inspectors, prepare firefighters or plan for increased spill risks.
“There are a lot of other important gaps right now that need to be filled before helping an oil train company expand its profits,” VandenHeuvel said.
Taxpayer watchdogs say safety improvements on Rainier’s main street could be achieved for far less. Jody Wiser of Tax Fairness Oregon said if Rainier was concerned about safety, it long ago could’ve changed its diagonal, head-first downtown parking into parallel parking with better views of oncoming trains.
“There are way less elaborate methods that could increase safety dramatically,” Wiser said. “And the community hasn’t taken those steps.”
Though no accidents between trains and cars have been reported in Rainier in the last five years, Larry McKinley, an Oregon Department of Transportation manager, said the project would undoubtedly increase safety. “They’re looking at it as a precaution into the future,” he said.
Construction wouldn’t start until at least late 2016, he said.
Most of the project’s funding will come from the state. Portland and Western Railroad, which operates the line between Portland and the Clatskanie export terminal, will chip in $750,000 for rail improvements. The city of Rainier expects to match that.
The Oregon Legislature approved $2 million earlier this year. The Oregon Department of Transportation’s rail division will add $1.5 million for crossing improvements. And Connect Oregon, a state lottery-funded program, is expected to contribute $2.9 million. Final cost estimates are still being drawn up.
The Rainier project is just one part of a concerted state effort to increase economic development in Columbia County. Connect Oregon is also slated to spend $4 million at nearby Port Westward to allow larger ships to access Global Partners’ oil train terminal and a proposed coal export terminal.
Global is working on a $50 million to $70 million expansion of its facility, which ships oil to West Coast refineries. The company wants to increase the amount of oil it moves from trains onto barges to 1.8 billion gallons. It’s currently limited to 50 million gallons, a cap it far exceeded last year.
The Connect Oregon awards will be finalized in August by the state transportation commission.