Refurbishment of the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad continues long-standing efforts to make the line an economic engine for Clark County. As the region tries to balance rural needs with development, the railroad can be a linchpin.
The 33-mile short-line rail is owned by Clark County and runs from Vancouver to Chelatchie, northeast of Amboy. The county leases two portions of the line to a pair of operators, including one that runs passenger trains from May to December along the north end.
While Christmas excursions and train robbery reenactments are entertaining, they belie the broader economic potential of the railroad. The Legislature recognized that in 2017, passing a bill designed to ease the way for development along the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad. The bill amended the Growth Management Act to allow for development along short-line railroads, notably applying only to Clark and Okanogan counties.
The goal, advocates said, was to allow manufacturers that are dependent upon rail access to develop parcels along the railroad, where adjacent farmland was underused.
Liz Pike, then a Republican lawmaker from Camas, said: “This is a victory for Clark County residents who want to work in the community where they live. I’ve been told by those interested in development along the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad to be prepared for a lot of ribbon-cutting ceremonies in the future. I look forward to seeing new manufacturing job opportunities in our local area as a result of this bill.”
That goal has been somewhat unrealized, but the potential remains.
Now, the line — and local businesses — will benefit from a $4.7 million investment from state transportation funds. The first $1.5 million will refurbish a 14-mile stretch from Vancouver to Battle Ground, a portion that is used by the Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad to move freight.
The Columbian reports that the work will focus on replacing deteriorating ties and tracks and improving water drainage. “In order for the line to be used into the future, you have to do this maintenance,” said Kevin Tyler, lands manager for Clark County Public Works.
Phase 2 of the project will focus on 12 miles of track from Battle Ground to Yacolt, and future work will cover seven miles from Yacolt to Chelatchie. Officials say the stretch from Battle Ground to Yacolt could eventually be adequate for commercial operations like the lower part of the railroad.
That, potentially, could provide the largest impact of the repair work. But it also likely will rekindle debates about growth and development in rural areas — along with the county government’s role in finding a proper balance between competing interests.
The Growth Management Act effectively limits sprawl and the encroachment of urbanization on outlying areas. But different questions are presented by industrial zones those that could sit along the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad.
While the Legislature in 2017 supported development along short-line railroads, it did little to help county governments navigate those questions. As The Columbian wrote editorially at the time: “Undertaking hasty actions that invite legal challenges could prove costly, but being excessively cautious would unnecessarily delay beneficial development.”
That conundrum remains, particularly as county residents weigh the value of farmland and forested areas against the promise of economic development and jobs. The Chelatchie Prairie Railroad travels through the middle of that conundrum.