Ashland is seeking state money from the Connect Oregon 3 fund, and the two California towns are looking for $3.5 million in matching funds, City Councilor David Chapman said.

In an effort to get freight trains rolling again over the Siskiyous, Ashland is working with the California towns of Weed and Montague to lease or buy the railroad line that was shut down by its owners last year in a rate dispute.

Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad closed the line in 2008 after shippers balked at rate increases.

The cities have drafted a joint powers of authority agreement as the Siskiyou Regional Railroad Authority, and they are seeking $16 million to acquire the 90-mile right-of-way, said City Councilor David Chapman, who has been working on the project for more than a year.

Ashland is seeking state money from the Connect Oregon 3 fund, and California towns are looking for $3.5 million in matching funds, Chapman said.

Ashland officials are scheduled to participate in talks next week with the railroad company to discuss the feasibility of the cities taking over the route and leasing it to a railroad company that would operate it, Chapman said.

The rail line, which traverses the Siskiyous, and is sometimes covered with snow in winter, has not been a money-maker for CORP, Chapman said.

In 2008 shippers balked at CORP's rate increases, and it closed the line. Shippers asked for relief from the federal Surface Transportation Board, which is still reviewing the case.

If the proposal were to succeed, it would probably bring in Jackson and Siskiyou counties, Medford and other cities — and would likely be run by the counties or a federal agency, Chapman said.

Ashland does not have a direct interest in getting rail freight service, as it has little need for industrial shipping capacity, but the city is moving forward with negotiations because "it's good for the region, and we don't want to lose the connection to the national railway system," Chapman said.

Keeping the rail line viable would also support a long-range goal of providing commuter rail service between Springfield and Weed via the Rogue Valley. Amtrak trains currently travel a route that takes them through Klamath Falls.

Eliminating rail service over the Siskiyous has pushed additional freight traffic onto Interstate 5, Chapman said. If the trend continues, the freeway will reach its carrying capacity and a third land in each direction would have to be built — a project that could cost more than $1 billion.

The cities' goal is to acquire the lease on the Ashland-to-Weed line and then either hire a rail company to operate it or buy it and "put it in the public realm." Chapman said. "But right now, someone has to make it happen. It won't work unless CORP wants to cooperate and shippers want to ship."

Railroad companies want to focus on major routes that make money, but governments and businesses want service everywhere, Chapman said.

"If cities could own and maintain the railroad right of way, that would take the responsibility off the railroad companies," he said.

Ashland's grant application has the support of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County, the Ashland City Council and the Rogue Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.