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Railway debate was intense at public meeting

Grand Forks city council got an earful from the public at a meeting about the options to save the international railway running to Kettle Falls, WA. As council made their case to the 70 people in attendance at the meeting, many people spoke passionately on both sides of the decision.
Council is faced with a decision to hire consultants to examine the business case for the rail line that supports currently three businesses in the Grand Forks / Christina Lake area.
Mayor Brian Taylor gave the audience the background to the current dilemma facing council. There are three options facing council: to purchase and repair the line for continued operations; to finance the needed infrastructure repairs; or to just allow the line to be abandoned. Taylor said that the businesses involved have already tried to come to an agreement with the rail operators, OmniTrax, but that there doesn’t seem to be a commercial resolution.
The proposed business case project would provide information for council to make further decisions to pursue some type of support for the rail line or to just abandon the project. Taylor feels that without this information council cannot make an informed decision, nor can they secure funding partners.
“The reality is that this $70,000 could be just the beginning. If it looks like this is a direction that’s going to be worthwhile to pursue then there will be additional money required for the next stage,” said Taylor. “But at this stage, if we answer the question: is it worth pursuing further, we’re going step by step. If it is worthwhile pursuing, and we do spend the money it puts us in a decent position to look for partners. We could go to the province or the feds with an arguable case.”
Taylor said he feels the best plan for the city would be to get the necessary information in order that council can make an informed decision about how to proceed.
Some audience members were against proceeding with the consulting project. Bill Faminoff said he feels that this is a disaster waiting to happen unless council can be very clear on what they want from the project.
“Specifically to the citizens here in Grand Forks, tell us, this is what we want to do. Not just a business case. A business case can mean anything,” said Faminoff. “So we need to be very specific, we need to have a clear understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish, and there’s got to be some costs involved. The thing is you’re asking me to approve you to expend $70,000 with limited information, I’m sorry I can’t do it.”
Michele Moriarity said that she supports council’s efforts and particularly the effort to protect jobs. “I’m raising a family in this town and my spouse needs to work here. To me it’s pretty basic stuff. We have more than one industry that will die if we don’t take a look at how we can save them. All we can do is take a look and work from there. We have to have faith that if we don’t do anything, those jobs will go. We need to do this.”
Others said that they support the direction council is moving but were frustrated by the lack of information provided prior to the meeting. Tom Gooderham, owner of Grand Forks Optical, suggested that the stakeholders need to contribute to the cost of the project as it unfolds.
“I would think you’re approaching it in the proper manner. You are going to study it before you’re going to prepare a plan that could possibly cost $250,000. If you can get some input, financially, that would offset some of these costs I believe you’re heading in the right direction. I need to see this economic impact plan. I would have really loved to see it tonight – I was looking for a hand out and didn’t get one,” said Gooderham.
Along with the public, representatives from the businesses at risk in the situation were present including Pacific Abrasives, International Reload, and International Forest Products. Regional district elected officials were also in attendance – Grace McGregor, Irene Perepolkin, Marguarite Rotvold.
OmniTrax served notice in the fall of 2008 that the line would be abandoned. They have agreed to keep operating but could close the line at any time without warning.
An economic impact study completed in November 2009 and paid for by the businesses involved in using the railway, identified the significant losses that would happen in the city if the railway closed.
The Kettle Falls Rail Abandonment Impact Study stated that “the rail line abandonment with it’s implied costs….accruing to existing shippers and the communities in which they are resident will further result in an immediate loss of near $300 thousand in land lease and property taxes payable to local governments ($3.0 million over ten years.) Given the extreme case of additional slowdowns or shutdowns of all shippers the impact would result in a loss in local tax revenue exceeding $780 thousand per years or an aggregate of $7.8 million over ten years. In a best case scenario these losses will seriously and severely erode the capacities and capabilities of the local government to provide essential services to its citizens. Already existing services capacities are stretched beyond the limit. This additional loss of revenues will be nothing short of catastrophic.”
Council will be making their decision about whether to proceed with the business case project at their meeting on Monday, Aug. 16 in council chambers.
Watch the video to see council’s presentations about the proposed project and the decision to be made.

Kettle Falls Rail Abandonment Impact Study