By Nathalie Hardy • Columnist • 

Rails with Trails wins big state grant

The group, led by Carlton winemaker Ken Wright, initially plans to turn the McMinnville to Gaston rail corridor into a bike and pedestrian trail. Eventually, it even envisions laying down tracks again, permitting restoration of freight and passenger rail service. 

The corridor runs from St. Joseph, just northeast of McMinnville on Highway 99W, to Washington County’s Hagg Lake, near Gaston. It is wide enough to accommodate multiple uses, as well as restrooms and other support facilities.

It passes through Carlton, where Wright has turned the old rail station into a tasting room. That’s what caught his interest initially.

The project was one of 155 alternative transportation projects submitted to the Oregon Department of Transportation for commission consideration. It was one of 11 winning approval for funding.

Officials credited its success, at least in part, to the groundswell of support it has drawn from local government officials, civic leaders, lay citizens, tourism and outdoor recreation interests. That was underscored by the large number of local people who filled out survey forms posted on the ODOT website.

“We are thankful to those folks who took the time to fill out that survey,” Wright said. “According to the discussion in Salem, the number of people who supported us online was amazing.

“This affirms to those people that it was time well spent. Them taking the time to participate totally mattered in us getting where we got to.”

Wright said he had a long list of people to thank, including former Yamhill County Commissioner Leslie Lewis, who championed the cause before leaving office in December, and her fellow commissioners, who agreed the county would pay to cover the local match requirement.

“We really need to thank them for their leadership in understanding the value of this project for this county by agreeing to a local 10.27 percent match,” Wright said. “They’ve been fantastic. They have even spent their private time supporting this project.”

Two weeks ago, he said, Lewis’s commission replacement, Allen Springer, and the county’s public works director, John Phelan, flew with him in a helicopter for an aerial tour of the corridor.

Phelan took extensive notes along the way. Using construction documents from the Banks to Vernonia Trail, also constructed along an abandoned rail bed, he was able to work up projected costs figures.

That really impressed the state, Wright said.

Wright said the project was an absolute poster child for the criteria in the current alternative transportation funding stream.

“Plus, though it’s not among the top criteria, they also know that, in addition to those positives, significant economic opportunities will come from this to help our small communities thrive,” Wright said.

He could barely contain his enthusiasm.

“This is a big deal,” he said. “It’s just awesome.”

Though the project has only recently began to take fully formed shape, civic leaders in Carlton have had their eye on it for 20 years now.

Mayor Kathie Oriet said she and Wayne Webke began advocating for the project in the early 1990s, after a young child was killed while walking along busy Highway 47 just outside Carlton city limits. And Wright has been in agreement from the outset.

One of Wright’s key contributions was negotiating Union Pacific’s asking price from a daunting $9 million down to a more manageable $2.4 million, based on a professional appraisal he and his wife, Karen, paid for personally.

Another was their donation of three blocks of right of way that had come under their personal ownership when they acquired the old rail station. That level of personal investment wasn’t lost on the commission, Oriet said.

Now it’s just a matter of seeing things through. And to assist, the nonprofit trail organization is soliciting tax-deductbile contributions that can be made at any First Federal branch in the county.

He said he’s not looking just for contributions from individuals, but also corporate and institutional donations of money, materials and/or labor. He urged any party open to the idea to visit for direction.

“We are really excited and know this is going to be an asset that will be here forever,” Wright said. “There are going to be generations and generations of people who are going to have this great resource for recreation.”

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