The Western News: Rail spur project funded

The Kootenai Business Park is getting a boost.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines announced on Friday that a $750,000 grant from the federal Economic Development Administration is being awarded to the 418-acre park, which is located south of Libby town limits.

The funds will be used to rehabilitate the existing 3,070-foot rail spur line and connect it to the BNSF main line.

Tina Oliphant, executive director of the Lincoln County Port Authority, said that bringing the rail spur online is the group’s top strategic priority. It was shut down 1-1/2 years ago for safety reasons because the curvature of the line was too tight for today’s larger rail cars.

Re-establishing the rail spur will initially benefit one company, S.K. Fingerjoint Inc., which opened in 2014.

Dan Kneller, who co-owns the lumber manufacturing business with his brother, Dave Kneller, said the rail spur “will help a whole lot.” The company won’t have to ship its products via tractor trailer to Eureka or Eastport, Idaho, before they are loaded onto a train to the Southeast. “It’ll save quite a bit of money,” Dan Kneller said.

The company is currently paying a high premium for transportation costs due to the high cost of trucking its product, Oliphant said, adding that the company estimates the addition of the rail spur and the accompanying improved margin would allow more rapid growth opportunities and a second shift of some 15 new employees.

In addition to the rail spur, the Kootenai Rail Development Project proposes installation of 1,130 feet of siding track parallel to the spur to provide additional storage space for railcars and maneuverability for locomotive operations.

Oliphant described the grant as “pretty competitive,” and noted that it is coming from an EDA region that consists of 10 states. “We jumped over a lot of hoops,” she said.

Oliphant, who has been in her position for the past two years, has known about the grant for a while, but “just didn’t trust it,” she said, joking. “They gave us a soft indication two months ago.”

KLJ, an engineering firm based in Helena, was chosen to perform final engineering of the project. That work will start immediately, Oliphant said.

The 60-90 day construction project should start in the spring, she said.

The Lincoln County Port Authority acquired the business park on Dec. 31, 2003 following the closure of the Stimson Lumber Company that had previously utilized the site.

A reduction in timber sales and mine closures and permitting issues have resulted in a negative impact to Lincoln County’s economy since the early 1990s. Lincoln County has an unemployment rate exceeding the national average and a per capita income level below the national level.

However, the rail spur rehabilitation has the potential to address both factors, Oliphant said.