Readers interested in rail transportation — and who isn’t? — will naturally be eager to review the draft of the 2014 Oregon State Rail Plan just published by the Oregon Department of Transportation. At 161 pages, not to mention the 100-page technical report, it takes patience to get through. But it includes some troubling facts, especially concerning money, and more especially the kind of money it will take to maintain, let alone expand, the Cascade passenger trains connecting Eugene with Portland via Albany, Salem and Oregon City.
More about the passenger service below. But first, one of the tables in the plan ranks Oregon’s shortline freight railroads by revenue per mile of track in 2011. It’s an eye-opener because it shows how tough a business railroading is. The Albany & Eastern, for example, which operates on 72 miles between Albany, Lebanon, Sweet Home and Mill City, had total revenue that year of less than $1.8 million or $24,622 per mile of track. It handled 3,011 carloads, which makes for revenue of $586 per car. Out of that, the railroad had to pay its employees, purchase fuel and maintain rolling stock and other equipment, and keep its track in working order, plus pay insurance and local property tax as well as state and federal taxes.
No wonder the railroad and other shortline operations like it occasionally sought and received state aid for capital projects. And no wonder that the Albany & Eastern has to collect fees from property owners to help offset the cost of maintaining private crossings. (Further, the A&E’s Sweet Home branch was listed in the plan as a segment at risk of closure because of little traffic, an eventuality the company has been trying to avoid by maintaining the line in hopes of more business.)
The other notable money angle in the plan concerns passenger rail, particularly the operations of the Cascade trains. ODOT has $19.3 million in funding for these operations this biennium, including $7 million from the sale of automobile custom license plates, but it anticipates a $10 million “shortfall.” The plan gives no clue how this hole is being covered, but it says the shortfall in “passenger operations and planning” may increase to more than $25 million in 2015-17.
Oregon has no dedicated revenue source to back the state-supported passenger trains. A citizen might suggest charging the passengers enough to cover the cost, but that would make tickets so expensive that most train users would get back in their cars instead.
Since 2011, two ODOT work groups have considered potential income sources to support passenger rail. Most notably, the recommendations include forming a taxing district from Eugene to Portland to levy a passenger train property tax. The legislature could form such a district and call for a tax election. But I doubt that voters would approve a property tax increase to support bistro service to Portland, especially if the increase would come out of the hide of local taxing districts because of tax compression.
Meanwhile, remember that there’s a state task force working on an environmental impact statement to prepare for improved Cascade train service by vastly upgrading the line. In view of the money problems, that effort looks hopeless.
The 2014 rail plan is interesting, as I said, but it paints no rosy picture of the future if you like rail. (hh)
You can look up the plan at www.oregon.gov/ODOT/TD/TP/Pages/railplan.aspx, which also tells you where to write if you’d like to comment on it.