A&E Railroad, neighbors work through issues

Sean C. Morgan

Property owners who have railroad crossings have been concerned about a letter sent by Albany and Eastern Railroad indicating they may be charged $600 in a permit transfer fee and they got a chance to talk about it last week at a public information meeting about A&E’s plans to repair its railroad track between Lebanon and Sweet Home.

The meeting, held at the Community Center, was hosted by Mark Russell, general manager of Albany and Eastern, and Ginny Wood, operations manager. About 40 people attended.

The company’s 70 miles of rails have been neglected for about 50 years, Russell said. The project goal is to raise the Federal Railroad Administration classification of the rails to level two. Right now, parts of the rails fall below the lowest classification. Speeds are limited in some places to as low as 3 mph. When complete, the track will allow speeds of up to 25 mph.

The project is largely funded through a Connect Oregon III grant through the Oregon Department of Transportation using Oregon Lottery dollars. The state will pay for approximately $2.6 million out of the $4 million estimated cost. It will replace ties and crossings. The A&E has already completed work between Albany and Lebanon and Lebanon and Mill City.

The railroad company also will remove brush and trees from the railroad right-of-way to “increase visibility so cars can see the trains, and the train crews can see the cars,” Russell said.

The work will begin when weather allows and likely continue into the fall.

“We actually started rebuilding these rails just after we purchased it,” Russell said. Rick and Bernice Franklin purchased it in 2007.

The main reason for the work is public safety and operational safety, Russell said, but he said his company is eager to see the railroad contribute to the economy in Sweet Home.

“There’s been a perception that, in Sweet Home, the railroad is going to go away,” Russell said. “It’s not.”

Sweet Home has no shippers using the railroad right now, he said. The closest shipper is four miles west of Sweet Home, but A&E officials are hoping that an improved railroad will help drive economic development.

“We live here,” Russell said. “We work here. We care about this community. We are trying to do what we can to raise the interest of industry to move to this area. We need jobs.”

The community has the nuts and bolts it needs for industry, Russell said. “We just need to get the industry here.”

The main purpose for the meeting was to let property owners along the rails know that A&E intends to be good neighbors and to let the public know how the project will impact the public, he said.

As the project approaches each crossing, the railroad will provide 14 days advance notice, Russell said. The crossings will be closed a couple of days at a time, and it will require significant reroutes on Pleasant Valley and Clark Mill roads.

Property owners along the right-of-way generally pay an annual fee for a crossing permit.

Some of them have agreements with Burlington Northern-Sante Fe Railroad, which owned the rails until the late 1990s. Some of them have even made payments as late as 2011, Russell said.

He said questions regarding the $600 fee are still being resolved. A letter outlining the permit requirements with A&E, including a $600 permit transfer fee as well as a $1 million insurance policy, was was written and mailed prior to A&E having all of the information it needs about existing permits, Russell said. The railroad has a request in to BNSF and property owners for permit information, so it can work out permits.

Property owners asked for more details about the costs and insurance, but Russell said they’ll need to look at the permits individually.

“I don’t have that kind of money,” one property owner told the railroad officials at the meeting.

It isn’t clear whether the railroad will charge property owners with existing permits the $600 fee, Wood said. That will be worked out after the company gathers all of the information it can from the Federal Railroad Administration and gathers all of the information it can about existing permits.