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If wine train stalls, try a bus

by: , This train used to carry passengers between Portland and Astoria for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial is being auctioned off by the state.

A consortium of local officials, politicians and business leaders is shooting for the stars with a visionary plan to create a tourism train that would run from Sherwood, through the Yamhill County wine country, and potentially on to Spirit Mountain Casino in Grande Ronde.

Could you get through that paragraph before the first pangs of skepticism set in? I was no different. In the time it takes to quaff a two ounce sampler of pinot, I'd concocted a list of formidable obstacles. There are steep costs; steep slopes; getting several towns and businesses, two counties, multiple agencies, and potentially a few entrepenuers and a casino all on the same page; figuring out if there's even a demand… did I mention cost? Yes, I had my doubts.

Then I spoke with Sherwood Asst. City Manager Jim Patterson and state Sen. Gary Geroge, R-Newburg. I'm hardly ready to predict the train will come to fruition, but I will say this: If everyone involved could get into a room and let these two pitch the project, the line for boarding passes would be longer than the row of cars lined up for this year's Cruisin'.

Patterson and George each seem to have the delicate blend of enthusiasm and realism that it takes to spearhead a project like this. And I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically support the idea. But if - OK, when - it gets caught in a political quagmire, there should be a ready alternative. Something cheaper that could be ready in a matter of weeks. Something like a tourism bus.

While the current group points to the Napa Valley's wine train as a model of success, there are many different modes of tranpostation that leave from towns like Calistoga and Healdsburg to tour the Napa and Sonoma valleys in California. Like the wine train, a local bus would be geared strictly toward tourism, not point-to-point transportation. It shouldn't look like a typical Tri-Met bus. Tourism vehicles in California's wine country range include motorized cable cars, restored fire engines, bikes and even horse-drawn carriages. Some of the buses are open-air style with a canopy.

In Healdsburg, a 'cable car' style bus picks up passengers in the town plaza and makes a complete circuit of area wineries each hour, allowing tasters to hop on and off at different intervals throughout the day. While local winery hoppers would spend most of their time frolicking through Yamhill County's vineyards, a tourism bus with a terminus in Sherwood would lead to people on the streets of old town at two crucial points in their tour, the beginning and end, when they're likely to spend money on food.

In Healdsburg last September, I watched the local market and bakeries swell with customers in the mid-morning, as people pieced together lunches for the day's tasting tour. In the early evening, let's just say you were be smart to make a reservation if you wanted to have dinner downtown.

The bus provides obvious financial advantages. Unlike the train tracks that run through Sherwood and into wine country, the roads aren't broken. A bus would also take Portland and Western, the Salem-based owner of the train lines, out of the equation, and minimiaze perhaps the biggest hurdle of all, insurance costs. And the cost to purchase and operate a bus would likely be a small fraction of what it might entail to get the train running. In addition, if the tourism bus does well, it could make an even stronger case for bringing the wine train to the area.

Yes, it is a great idea to shoot for the stars with the idea for a wine train. But if you only make it to the moon, that's not too bad.