The city of Astoria is struggling to maintain the aging trestles and street-end bridges along the waterfront enough to keep the Astoria Riverfront Trolley running.
The Port of Astoria Commission on Tuesday put the city’s feet to the fire, passing a motion that the agency would like freight rail access maintained to the central waterfront in case freight traffic ever returns.
“In the future, there could be a cargo that seeks our facility and requires rail transport,” said Commissioner Stephen Fulton, who has called for the Port to take such a stance at multiple meetings.
The state owns the right-of-way on the railroad from Wauna to Tongue Point. The city took possession of the railroad and right-of-way from Tongue Point to the central waterfront in a 1996 railbanking agreement with the state and Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC meant to preserve rail corridors.
The first train from Portland to Astoria came along the Columbia River Railroad in 1898. Throughout much of the 20th century, Astoria was a bustling industrial waterfront, with multiple rail spurs crossing the Port’s docks.
But by most accounts, Astoria is no longer a destination for regular freight or passenger rail service.
Regular passenger trains to Astoria had ended by the 1950s. Bob Melbo, the state rail planner and president of Portland & Western until 2001, said sporadic cargo rail service to Astoria ended in 1995. He said Astoria Plywood Mill was the last major freight rail customer in Astoria. A three-car freight train from Portland & Western carrying undersea fiber optic cables in 2003 was the last to travel to the Port’s central waterfront.
“Typically, railroads thrive on volume,” Melbo said, adding there would need to be a significant volume of rail cars to justify fixing up the rails through Astoria to freight capacity.
Like Port Executive Director Jim Knight, Melbo said it’s more likely freight rail would come back to North Tongue Point. The former U.S. Navy base and industrial dock has been under continual speculation as a marine terminal, because of its access to both a derelict rail spur from the Portland & Western Railroad and a channel of the Columbia River.
Repairing the rail between Wauna and Tongue point has been estimated at $1 million a mile. Rece Bly, a retired attorney and entrepreneur, is the most recent party to offer his vision of Tongue Point. Bly said there would need to be about 5,000 rail cars of cargo a year to Tongue Point to justify repairing the rails. Melbo said a previous interstate commerce commission estimated the need for 9,300 cars a year to make freight service to Tongue Point feasible.
The state Department of Transportation recently warned the city that bridge ends between Sixth and 11th streets could have to close to both vehicular traffic and the trolley unless repairs were made immediately. The situation was similar to that faced by the Port, which closed portions of Pier 2’s docks after state inspectors limited them to 3 tons, essentially barring delivery trucks but allowing passenger traffic.
The Astoria City Council declared an emergency and approved of $206,000 in emergency repairs in August. Bergerson Construction Co. is now working its way down the street ends, reinforcing the bridges.
“The repairs that are being done right now are being done just to maintain the 3-ton road limit,” said Cindy Moore, the city’s support engineer.
Moore said the city is trying to do only the minimum amount of maintenance in advance of a $12 million project to replace those street-end bridges starting next fall and continuing over the next few years.
“After that project, then we will have bridges that are to highway standards,” she said,
She estimated it would take the city an additional $950,000 to bring the bridge ends up to rail standards.
“We did present that to ODOT,” she said. “They have denied us the funding to build it to full freight standards.”
But Moore said the new bridge ends in downtown will leave space underneath to expand the substructure and expand the capacity of the rails, if Portland & Western were to make such an investment.