Rails to Trails to Reality

By Nathalie Hardy

The idea that “if you build it they will come” worked in the classic movie “Field of Dreams.” So, the Yamhelas Westsider Trail Coalition is hoping the same principle proves true for them. With one 2.4 million dollar difference.

For the group pursuing the “rails to trails” vision, it’s more like “if we get funding, we will build it, and then they will come.”

For years, the idea of creating a multi-use recreational and commercial byway running from Yamhill County’s St. Joseph Junction, between McMinnville and Lafayette, to Washington County’s Seghers Junction, near Gaston, carried a price tag of $9 million. 

The dream of using the 17-mile stretch of Union Pacific railroad right-of-way was of the pipe variety when the price to acquire the easement was so high. 

But, Carlton’s Ken and Karen Wright of Ken Wright Cellars believed in the dream so fervently, they dipped into their own pockets to pay for an appraisal, which determined the actual value of the property to be $2.4 million. While not pocket change, that assessed value transformed the project into the realm of reality. 

And, sure enough, Wright said people are already coming. 

“That number was more within reach to all parties involved, and that began a whole new level of involvement,” Wright said. 

The Yamhelas Westsider Trail Coalition monthly meetings are attended by dozens of curious private citizens, supportive representatives from county and state organizations, as well as branches of government. In addition, Wright said he’s been contacted by hundreds of people ready to assist with this project. In addition to fundraising efforts, the coalition is collecting names and information of people and businesses that can make in-kind donations, Wright said. 

In May, the project got another big boost when the Yamhill County Commissioners unanimously agreed to provide the required 10.27 percent match, $246,480.00, for the Transportation Enhancement Grant to purchase the right-of-way for the rail line from McMinnville to Gaston.

Wright credits commissioners Kathy George, Leslie Lewis and Mary Stern for “having the foresight to see the value of maintaining the opportunity to buy this line.” Something he said they did by signing an agreement with Wright to preserve the two blocks of rail line in Carlton, which kept Union Pacific from moving forward on selling off the property piecemeal. 

“We’ve got a government entity showing some foresight; now we’ll see if we can pull the whole thing off,” Wright said. He added that the coalition’s application is one of the finalists for the grant, which would pay 89 percent of the purchase price. If granted, and added to the match from the county’s economic development fund fed by lottery funds, Wright said the funding for rail line acquisition will be in place. But, the group won’t know for sure whether it’s awarded the grant until the end of this year, or perhaps early next year, said Wright. 

So, time is still of the essence, warned Wright, at one of the group’s monthly meetings. 

“We’re counting on Union Pacific’s goodwill,” he said. “They’re patient,” he said of the railroad officials, “but we need to communicate with them that progress is being made.”

If the coalition can’t begin showing solid progress and communicating that to the company, Wright said, it could well “reverse direction and start selling it off piece by piece.”

So, while they wait with fingers crossed for notification of the grant award, the group continues to examine other funding options and is collecting the names of interested people and organizations. 

Yamhelas Westsider Trail Coalition, working in conjunction with the seven-county Northwest Oregon Resource Conservation and Development Council, has adopted a three-phase approach. It aims to acquire the right-of-way in the first phase, develop pedestrian and bicycle trails in the second and establish commuter and freight rail service in the third — the most distant and ambitious of the lot.

Wright said there is already a tremendous amount of interest for cycling in wine country, but the roads with narrow, or no, shoulders are dangerous. Wright said a recreational trail for hiking and cycling will allow the area to flourish.

Wright said he couldn’t emphasize enough the positive economic impact this project would have on Yamhill County. “Because once it’s safe to use the trail, people are really going to come.”

To see a video created by Jeff Lorton visit the website or the group’s Facebook page. 

Anyone wishing to make a tax-deductible donation can do so by visiting any of First Federal’s Yamhill County branches or mailing a check to Friends of Yamhelas Westsider Trail, P.O. Box 861, Carlton, OR 97111.  

Nathalie Hardy is a reporter for the News-Register.

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