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Rail funding finalized

$5.6 million BUILD grant will help stabilize Washington's PCC Shortline Rail

February 2019
By Trista Crossley


For the state-owned Palouse River and Coulee City (PCC) Shortline Rail in Eastern Washington, the path to a well-maintained, stabilized system just got a little smoother.

In December, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that $1.5 billion in discretionary grant funding would be awarded through the Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development Transportation Discretionary Grants Program—otherwise known as BUILD grants. The PCC was one of 91 projects nationwide to be awarded a BUILD grant; it will receive $5.6 million, which will be matched with $5.6 million of state and private funding. The money will be used to replace or rehabilitate approximately 10 bridges, replace about 4.5 miles of rail and rehabilitate nearly 16.3 miles of track. The repairs will increase operating efficiency on the shortlines by allowing heavier freight cars to be moved faster.

“The Department of Transportation statewide could submit only three grants,” said Ron Pate, the Washington State Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT) director of rail, freight and ports. The project proposals weren’t limited to rails, but could include any transportation project. “In a department as big as we are, with as many road miles, bridges, airports and infrastructure projects as we have, the secretary of transportation decides which three grants get submitted. The secretary supported this project wholeheartedly. He understands the PCC moves a lot of wheat, which is very important to the east side of state. We wanted to make sure that as a transportation organization, we weren’t just looking at highways.”

WSDOT is in the process of developing a construction plan using the grant money, and Pate said they hope to begin work on the PCC this summer. However, if the government shutdown continues, it could cause delays in getting the paperwork signed.

A BUILD grant was also awarded to an infrastructure project in Spokane County that will support a new warehouse and distribution facility by building a roundabout, making lane improvements, extending shoulders and adding streetlights and a shared-use pathway. That project received $14.3 million.

To help match the PCC BUILD grant, private companies, including the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, pledged almost $350,000, while the state kicked in $5.3 million. Nearly 40 PCC users, operators, ports, associations and localities wrote letters of support. WSDOT also worked with Washington’s congressional delegation to garner support for the grant proposal.

“We are doing the right things here. We are leveraging money we had to support the economy. I think it really resonated and was a message that was well received,” Pate said.

The state acquired the first part of the PCC in 2004, and the rest by 2007. In all, the track stretches 298 miles and serves five Eastern Washington counties: Adams, Grant, Lincoln, Spokane and Whitman. WSDOT contracts with private companies to operate the three branches of the PCC. WSDOT oversees the facilities and regulatory portions of the operating leases and is responsible for most of the capital projects done on the system. The operators are responsible for the basic track maintenance, such as tie replacement, weed control and signage.

In 2017, the PCC moved almost 12,000 rail cars through the system, about 2,500 more from the year before. More than 20 percent of Eastern Washington’s wheat crop is moved on the PCC shortlines each year.

When the state acquired the PCC, it was in sad shape, both physically and in terms of profit. That’s not surprising, Pate explained, since historically, the Class 1 railroads “…didn’t give these routes up because they were profitable; it was because they couldn’t maintain them anymore.” WSDOT has been trying to get ahead of the PCC’s maintenance needs since it acquired the system. Pate said the money from the BUILD grant will be a big step forward in that effort and will help the state better meet shippers’ needs.

“This will decrease their costs and decrease what it takes to maintain the system. We want the operators to make a profit and move their products efficiently,” he said.

“Our private partners have been great to work with. This is a major transportation system. It’s not easy pulling everyone together on the same page. They want to work with the system, and they have skin in game.”

Pate said the overall state of the PCC right now is fair.

“It needs improvement, that’s why we are going after all the funding we can. We want to also look at how we can get more shippers on the lines. If we can expand the shipper base, that will better support the operators, which means they’re going to have more money for maintenance. Once the system is stabilized, grant money gets put into upgrades instead of maintenance,” he explained.

In 2015, the PCC released a 10-year strategic plan that identified three key goals:

• Safe operations;
• Efficient operations; and
• Economic development.

According to Pate, while WSDOT is achieving those goals with the funding they have, the BUILD grant money will accelerate progress. “Every department of transportation has plans. We are a multimodal agency, always looking for opportunities to move products and people. The plan is the plan, but if something happens that means we need to make changes, we need to be flexible and change it. A good plan is one that is used and updated to address real needs.”

Looking ahead, Pate sees a promising future for the PCC.

“I think people see the value in the system. It is supporting the Washington economy. It is something that is truly a business opportunity. Lots of time in state departments of transportation, we focus on how to ‘build this highway from here to here.’ (The PCC) is truly a business. We have to look at commodities, shipments. We have to strategize from a business point of view, and we are showing the Legislature and federal officials that we are actually doing that.”