The acronym for the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Activists is AORTA. And like the artery it shares a name with, the organization is hoping to pump new blood into Eastern Oregon’s defunct passenger rail system.
It’s been more than 20 years since Amtrak shuttered the Pioneer line, a massive train route that connected Seattle with Chicago and many Eastern Oregon communities in between.
The association wants to revive a shorter version of the Pioneer line, which would span from Portland to Boise and include stops in Pendleton, Hinkle, La Grande, Baker City, Ontario, The Dalles and Hood River.
The volunteer organization met in The Dalles on June 20 to discuss the concept and plan a rail passenger summit at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande in March 2019.
Association President Jon Nuxoll of Eugene said the group has 150 to 200 members all across Oregon, but the association needs to expand its base of supporters to achieve its goal.
“This is not going to happen overnight,” he said.
There are a few ways to navigate northern Oregon from east to west and vice versa. Driving a car along the Interstate 84 is tried and true, but travelers can also fly from Pendleton to Portland via Boutique Air or hop on a Greyhound bus.
But Nuxoll argued that reintroducing rail as a transportation option would offer an important choice for rural Oregonians.
Nuxoll noted the increasing popularity of the Amtrak Cascades line, a train that travels between Eugene and Vancouver, British Columbia.
With increasing congestion along the I-5 corridor, Nuxoll said additional rail options are a much more effective way of relieving traffic than adding lanes to a highway.
Eastern Oregon might be a world away from the Willamette Valley, but Nuxoll said he often travels to Boise to visit family. If he had the option, he’d prefer a train to the eight-hour drive.
As a La Grande resident, association Vice President David Arnold is familiar with transportation challenges of the east side of the state.
Tucked between Ladd Canyon and Cabbage Hill, Arnold said La Grande residents often find themselves trapped in town during the winter, when the Oregon Department of Transportation closes down Interstate 84. A train would help local residents bypass the roads on a preferred alternative mode of transportation.
“A lot of folks don’t care to ride the Greyhound bus,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome for the association is finding a way to fund the new train route.
When federal funding dried up for the Pioneer line in 1997, Amtrak tried to appeal to the Oregon Legislature to keep it running, but lawmakers passed on Amtrak’s funding proposals.
In 2009, Amtrak put out a report that looked at reviving the Pioneer line and some possible routes it could take.
Although each route was more expansive than the association’s proposal, Amtrak found it would take between $379 million and $493 million in implementation and capital costs.
Arnold said the association has not yet done a cost study for its proposal, but admitted it would take “millions of dollars” to get done.
While a new rail line would have a significant price tag, Nuxoll said all transportation is publicly subsidized.
Whether it’s a gas tax for road repairs for vehicular travel or the federal Essential Air Service subsidy for Pendleton passenger flight, taxpayers bear part of the cost.
The association is trying to keep the project feasible by using existing rail used by Union Pacific Railroad, although there will probably be a need for additional rail capacity and signage.
Under the knowledge that the group will eventually approach the Legislature for funding, the rail passenger summit at EOU is meant to galvanize public and political support for the association’s plans. Arnold said the association is looking to attract politicians who have previously supported passenger rail like Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, as well as state legislators and local politicians from both sides of the border.
While rail service for Eastern Oregon hasn’t been a priority in Salem, it has been on their radar.
Published in 2014, the Oregon State Rail Plan states that due to strong growth projections for Umatilla and Morrow counties, restoring the Pioneer line “would provide direct access to eastern Oregon and reconnect Portland with the major cities of the mountain west.”
Arnold added that between the inter-city and inter-county bus services from Kayak Public Transit and Northeast Oregon Public Transit, there would be additional connectivity between buses and trains.
Contact Antonio Sierra at email@example.com or 541-966-0836.