Closing of railroad hub is a tough blow

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Over and over we hear that the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic could hit us as hard, if not harder, than the Great Depression, which ravaged this nation through the 1930s.

Frankly, it seems difficult to believe, and even harder to accept — mostly because we don’t want to.

Yet, we must accept this as a real possibility so action can be taken to get the economy — particularly the local economy — to previous levels.

The news out of Wallula this week that the Cold Connect railroad hub for transporting Northwest produce to the East Coast is out of business is our canary in the coal mine. It shows that economic cuts made in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic can hit hard, and they can hit right here in Walla Walla County.

It was only 14 years ago when the cold-storage rail facility opened as Railex, a private/public partnership with the Port of Walla Walla as well as state and federal governments. The facility, constructed on Port-owned land, cost $58 million to develop.

It was quickly a success, and it seemed as if the taxpayers’ investment would pay dividends for decades to come.

In 2017, the Union Pacific Railroad purchased the facility from Railex, renaming it Cold Connect. The name change, however, didn’t slow its success.

Cold Connect management reported to the Port of Walla Walla that its 2018 annual shipments totaled about 750 million pounds of produce, with the highest volumes in onions, apples, wine, pears and potatoes.

But the facility’s successful run has clearly finished its course.

“This decision was not made lightly. Since acquiring the Railex assets in 2017, employees diligently worked to grow volumes and create a platform for the future; however, with COVID-19 impacting volume and truck prices, it is no longer sustainable to continue operations,” Union Pacific Railroad officials said.

Now what?

Get working on finding ways to get the facility back in service.

Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Patrick Reay said Tuesday that a meeting with Union Pacific Railroad is already scheduled to discuss the 200,000-square-foot facility.

That’s a solid start.

It’s not yet time to panic, but it is time for the Port to focus on ways to fill in the gaps left by Cold Connect’s closure.

This shipping alternative was great for local agriculture as produce could be shipped across the country to Rotterdam, N.Y., in five days — and at lower costs than trucks.

Right now, the price of oil has plummeted, and the price of gasoline is below $2 a gallon in some places (no, not this place — it’s around $2.35 in Walla Walla, but that’s a rant for another day). That makes trucking a more cost-effective choice right now.

But that will change at some point. When it does, the Port of Walla Walla needs to be prepared to seize on the opportunity. It starts with the meeting that’s been scheduled.