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Daily Barometer: Passenger Rail Forum Invites Controversy

Oregon Department of Transportation employee Michael Holthoff only made it through the first slide of evaluation results before an onslaught of audience questions derailed his presentation.

It was clear that Corvallis and Oregon State University community members have adamant concerns regarding the potential rail line and the very real possibility that a line through Corvallis will not come to fruition.

The Oregon Passenger Rail Project would create a 125-mile segment between Eugene and Portland as part of the Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor. One of the four alternative routes on the project is the yellow line, which would span from Albany to Junction City, and travel through Corvallis.

According to the evaluation results, which tested the preliminary alternative routes against the goals and objectives of the project, the yellow Corvallis line scored the lowest. The scores were particularly low in the areas of cost effectiveness, preservation of freight rail capacity and equity of travel alternatives.

“The yellow line doesn’t look good,” Holthoff said.

Tom Johnson, a faculty member at the Valley Library, was one of many who found the goals on which the lines were weighted were an inadequate measure of the impact of the yellow line.

“This doesn’t seem to factor in the number of people that would be served by that line,” Johnson said.

Others voiced concerns that the criteria for determining the weighted scores were not clearly disclosed, and therefore the Corvallis line seems unfairly disadvantaged. The goals were derived from the initial stages of the project, called the scoping process, in which information was gathered about the community needs.

“It’s just a tool,” Holthoff said about the study. “There are a lot of other factors that aren’t in here.”

Attendees wanted to make sure that such factors included were the community apprehensions and desires expressed at these public forums that have been held around the state. Corvallis has been particularly vocal about keeping the yellow line possibility as part of the equation. There are currently 2,153 signatures on an online petition to bring the passenger rail line to Corvallis.

During this stage of the project, ODOT has been seeking input from the public and from the project teams in order to determine how and when to move forward.

“We are at a critical milestone right now,” Holthoff said. “We are narrowing down to a reasonable range for study.”

On Dec. 17, the information gathered thus far will be presented to the Oregon Passenger Rail Leadership Council, a group composed of elected officials and experts.

The council will then move to the next stage of the study the tier one environmental impact study, which, Holthoff said, is a “very high level view of what routes could be and their environmental impacts.”

A draft of the results from the Environmental Impact Study will address whether or not specific routes meet the purpose and need of the project and the communities impacted. Those that clearly did not meet these needs were dropped early on.

Once the council approves the preliminary alternatives and clears the way for the study to begin, the study itself will be at least a year-long process. After that, the draft will be open to public comment, and the council will then reconvene to assess the most favorable alignment.

If that choice does not align with Corvallis residents’ pick for the passenger rail, many hope that other improvements to alternative modes of transportation will be considered.

Nathan Hinkle, a senior in chemical engineering, hopes to see a significant improvement in the bus system from Corvallis to Albany. He said he was once stranded at the Albany train station and, having missed the bus, had no way to return to Corvallis.

“The Linn Benton loop is completely inadequate,” Hinkle said. “It needs to be given priority.”

ODOT has been working with the Eugene, Corvallis and Albany Metropolitan Planning Organizations to improve transit from U of O to OSU and from Corvallis to the Albany train station.

“We have been trying to improve transit way ahead of this study,” Holthoff said.

There are many contested questions still surrounding the project, and it will still be years, and billions of dollars, before this rail line is implemented.

“I’m just hopeful that the end result is that people can get out of Corvallis, to Eugene or Portland, in a timely, reliable way,” Johnson said.

Emma-Kate Schaake

City reporter

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