WA Shippers Urge State
by Peggy Steward
Potato and onion shippers in Washington state are urging the Legislature to fund operations of a railcar program aimed at providing transport alternatives for perishable produce.
A chronic shortage of trucks has worsened in recent years, and the Washington Potato and Onion Association, a shippers group, has been looking at a railcar pool patterned after the state’s successful grain train program. Last fall, Congress, led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., appropriated $1 million for the state to buy refrigerated railcars for produce shipping. But the federal funds can’t be used for start-up or operating expenses.
Now the shippers are hoping the state will come up with $250,000 a year for two years to get the program up and running. After that, the program is expected to generate enough fees to be self-supporting.
The produce railcar program has many benefits for the state, said Pat Boss, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission in Moses Lake. Agriculture is an important part of the state economy, and to remain viable, shippers need cost-effective alternatives to distant markets.
Also, using rail gets trucks off state highways, reducing traffic congestion and wear and tear on the roads.
Boss said transportation options have been made more difficult in recent months, since the Port of Portland lost two major containerized steamship lines. About 20 percent of exported potatoes and potato products went through the Port of Portland, he said. Now that volume is being carried on trucks or trains to the ports of Tacoma or Seattle, he said.
The truck shortage has also worsened with skyrocketing fuel costs and new federal regulations governing hours truckers can drive, making cost-effective rail options more attractive than ever, said Paul Vander Stoep, executive director of the Washington Perishable Shippers Cooperative Association in Mount Vernon.
Twenty years ago, when there were more rail options, the state shipped 2,500 railcars of produce a year, Vander Stoep said. This season to date, 365 railcars of potatoes and onions have been shipped from the state, he said.
“Clearly, we have more volume than cars available,” Vander Stoep said.
The biggest problem has been the dependability of reserving railcars.
“Shippers could sell based on having a car available,” he said. “It’s difficult to sell when you don’t know when you can ship.”
It can take one to three weeks for Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, the only major railroad left operating in Washington, to provide a rail car, a briefing paper from the potato commission said.
BNSF had planned to build a new fleet of refrigerated railcars, but after putting 300 of the new cars in service in 2004, BNSF shelved plans for adding to the fleet in 2005 and 2006, Vander Stoep said.
BNSF, Union Pacific and other railroads have offered surplus railcars to the state for $1 a car. In 2003, the state Legislature approved a bill allowing the state Department of Transportation to establish the produce railcar pool, but did not provide funding.
Potato and onion shippers aren’t the only ones who could use the railcar program, Boss said. Frozen-food shippers have also expressed interest in rail options.
It could cost between $25,000 and $35,000 to upgrade the used cars, depending on their condition, said Stephen Anderson, manager of WSDOT’s rail services in Olympia. The federal money could refurbish about 40 cars.
The state could buy new refrigerated cars, but at about $200,000 each, the federal money wouldn’t go very far.
“We’re looking at all the possibilities,” Anderson said. “We want to present a balanced program that serves all.”
Boss called the railcar pool program an example of a federal, state and private partnership. Congress will also be approached for another $1 million to buy more railcars for the program, he said.
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