TILLAMOOK – The Port of Tillamook Bay Board of Commissioners has approved a contract with the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad (OCSR) to extend the area of track on which they can operate their tourist trains. The 20-year exclusive lease agreement for 46 miles of track took 14 months to be reached.
The tracks the Port board agreed to lease to OCSR at its March 27 meeting start near the Air Museum and extend to beyond the Salmonberry River. OCSR sought an exclusive agreement to use the track because they will gain some valuable exemptions from the Federal Railroad Administration if the track is designated as a tourist railroad.
Tim Thompson, of OCSR, said having the track designated as a tourist railroad will make it easier for them to restore and operate on the track.
“We’re not looking for a handout,” said Thompson. “All we want is use of the track. We don’t want any money from the Port.”
Thompson said the agreement gives OCSR two years of use of the track before they start making payments to the Port. According to Thompson, OCSR’s business model would need a couple of years to build ridership to support payments on the track.
Thompson said OCSR gets people to stop in local communities who otherwise wouldn’t.
“We’d like to bring that not just to Garibaldi and Rockaway, but to Tillamook as well,” he said. Thompson said OCSR had 13,000 riders last year.
Several of the Port commissioners expressed enthusiasm about the idea at the meeting, but Port Commissioner Bill Baertlein, who is running for Tillamook County Commissioner, said he favored plans that would convert the track to pedestrian trails. He also added he was “thinking about” a multi-million dollar offer the Port had received from a company that would like to buy the tracks and remove them for scrap.
However, Port Commissioner Jim Young was supportive of the scenic railroad.
“This is a good thing for this county,” he said.
In addition to the eventual income from the lease agreement, the Port will reduce its expense on insurance substantially because OCSR will be responsible for insuring the track.
OCSR currently operates a regular train between Garibaldi and Rockaway Beach during July and August, and dinner trains throughout the year. The new track will allow OCSR to add a station in Tillamook near the Blue Heron French Cheese Co. and have more dinner trains. Thompson said that in order to make the railroad a bigger attraction, they needed more track.
Thompson said OCSR will do a lot of work to improve the track to the point where they can use it. He didn’t understand why it took 14 months for the agreement with the Port to be reached.
“It would be in the best interest of the Port,” he said before the agreement passed. “It’s good for them and it’s good for us. They won’t be receiving anything from us for two years, but we are paying to maintain their property.”
Michele Bradley, director of the Port of Tillamook Bay, said in her opinion it was the committee approach that slowed the process.
“Typically, we have a deal worked out by management,” she said.
Bradley said there was lots of back and forth in the process because there were many changes to the agreement. She adds that there were other delays such as travel schedules and the schedule of the Port’s lawyer.
“There was definitely fault on both sides,” she said. “We could have expedited it more, but we have a lot going on at the Port.”
Bradley said since OCSR already has an agreement to operate on the other parts of the track, there was no rush to get the deal made.
“They’ve been telling us since late September that they were going to have the agreement the next week – and it’s been six months,” Thompson said several weeks before the March meeting when the agreement was passed.
Thompson is optimistic about the possible tourist draw that a more expansive scenic railroad could be, and the possibilities in the agreement for both OCSR and the Port.
“We like this agreement,” he said. “We have to be partners in this thing.”