St. Helens Council: Agencies should consider effect of increased rail activity on city

by: MARK MILLER - Traffic, including a Metro West ambulance, sits at the interchange of St. Helens Street and Highway 30 in north St. Helens while waiting for a log train to clear the railroad crossing. After weeks of debating how it should articulate concerns over a potential increase in rail traffic through St. Helens, the St. Helens City Council voted Wednesday, Aug. 21, to approve a mildly worded resolution asking federal agencies to consider how an increase would affect the city.

The resolution comes as a compromise between two factions on the five-member city council.

Councilor Susan Conn has argued the city should take a strong stance against increased unit train traffic that could result from a proposed expansion of Port Westward.

On the other end of the council, Councilor Keith Locke has urged the city to avoid making any statement that could curtail economic development.

“We don’t want to make a statement against the unit trains that could hurt us down the road sometime,” Locke said Monday, Aug. 26, noting that a company could come into the area with a proposal that would increase train traffic but also generate hundreds of local jobs.

Conn said she doesn’t see the resolution — which was altered in a council worksession last Wednesday to remove specific references to unit trains after Port of St. Helens Executive Director Patrick Trapp testified asking that they not be singled out among other forms of rail traffic — as criticizing the Port or telling it what to do.

“I see it as a positive statement from our city government that we’re in support of our citizens,” Conn said Monday. “I don’t see it as an attack on anybody else.”

Both Conn and Locke said they are pleased with the resolution as adopted.

“All the resolution says is that whenever a company’s looking to come in here with rail effects, that we sit down and talk about the effects of it,” said Locke, calling it a “general statement” with no pointed language. “And I don’t think that hurts anybody when we sit down and talk about the effects.”

Conn and Locke acknowledged that councilors disagreed on the resolution and had to reach a consensus, which ultimately culminated in the revised resolution’s unanimous passage last week.

“It basically took several rewrites, or a couple of rewrites, anyway,” said Conn. “The areas of disagreement were noted and researched.”

“We kind of massaged it,” Locke said. “I think it’s a good resolution. ... I think it tells our community that we’re listening to them.”

When asked whether they believe the federal government will take the resolution into account, both Conn and Locke hesitated.

“I guess it all depends on what the topic is,” said Locke. He suggested federal regulators may give greater scrutiny to coal trains, which could have come through St. Helens if energy company Kinder Morgan had followed through on plans to construct a coal terminal at the Port Westward industrial park north of Clatskanie, than for smaller, less controversial projects.

Conn expressed hope that Oregon’s congressional delegation will take note of the resolution. She also voiced support for the idea of a regional forum for cities to discuss matters of shared concern, like the Portland and Western Railroad tracks that run through eastern Columbia County’s cities from Scappoose north to Rainier.

“I think that all of us are interested in more collaboration, for various reasons,” said Conn, adding, “As a collective group, we need to look out for the highest and best interests of our communities.”

The Rainier City Council voted unanimously earlier this year to send a letter to the Port of St. Helens opposing increased rail traffic. The Scappoose City Council adopted a resolution before Kinder Morgan withdrew its proposal for a Columbia County coal terminal, which urged state agencies or Kinder Morgan itself to study how coal unit trains could impact Scappoose.

The Board of County Commissioners will consider whether to approve the Port’s proposal to expand Port Westward at a public meeting in Clatskanie on Sept. 18.

The Columbia County Planning Commission has recommended the rezoning proposal be denied.

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