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City preserves building slot for commuter rail

The city is so optimistic that Ashland may one day be connected to other Valley cities by commuter rail, it's saving space on the Croman Mill property plans for an extra rail spur to accommodate passenger trains.

However, commuter rail in Southern Oregon — which would likely use the existing railroad tracks and run from Central Point to Ashland — is little more than a dream right now, according to Vicki Guarino, planning coordinator for the Rogue Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization, a division of the Rogue Valley Council of Governments.

"It wouldn't be feasible now; what we're looking at is for the future," she said. "Something like this would take decades to make happen."

This month the Metropolitan Planning Organization began a yearlong travel demand study that will analyze which kinds of alternative transportation would be most practical for the Valley.

The organization hopes to begin to release data from the study this fall, and complete phase one of it by the spring of next year, Guarino told the Planning Commission at its Tuesday night meeting.

Essentially, the future of commuter rail in the Valley hangs on the population density findings of the study, she said. The study will find out how many people would need to live or work in Southern Oregon in order to make commuter rail economical for the region.

Even though many people in the Valley, and especially in Ashland, support the idea of commuter rail, that doesn't necessarily mean they'd get on the train every weekday, Guarino said.

"People just swear up and down that they'd ride the train. Would they really? I ask myself that question," she said.

In 2007, the organization conducted a commuter rail study and found that the rail network would cost $26 million to create and $3 million to operate each year. Some federal funding might be available for the project, especially since the Obama Administration appears to support alternative transit, Guarino said.

But it's not as simple as upgrading tracks, buying passenger trains and installing boarding platforms, Guarino said. Creating a commuter rail network would require the cooperation of the owner of the tracks, Rail America, she said.

The 2007 study also found that the commuter rail trains would need to run at least every 30 minutes on weekdays, likely from about 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. in order to adequately serve commuters.

Trains would help eliminate congestion on Interstate 5 and Highway 99, the Valley's two main thoroughfares. There is little room beside either road to add extra lanes, unless existing businesses and homes are demolished, Guarino said.

"Travel forecasting shows that despite recent significant investment to modernize travel routes, travel delays will continue to be a problem" on both roads, according to the organization.

Planning Commissioners have generally supported the city's proposal to include space on the Croman Mill property for a future rail spur. The city is in the process of creating zoning requirements for the 65-acre, privately-owned parcel, located east of Tolman Creek Road.

The Croman site, which will likely be zoned to accommodate industrial spaces, offices and housing, would probably be the last stop on the 16-mile commercial rail network, if it were created.

Commissioners had mixed reactions to the idea of a Valley-wide commuter rail system.

Commissioner Michael Dawkins said the trains might be unpopular because people who missed the last train of the day could be stranded near their workplace.

"It seems like a good idea but realities often get in the way," he said, "particularly when you have to go a distance and you're, like, stuck."

Commission Chair Pam Marsh said cities would have to convince commuters that taking the train could be a "comfortable" experience.

"Branding and marketing are important," she said.

Even though the city intends to save a spot for commuter rail trains on the Croman property, the trains could never arrive there, Guarino said.

"If we fall way short of the density requirements ... then I doubt that we would approach the rail owners," she said. "I think we need to establish the baseline first."

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.