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Hearing a proxy for coal, oil debate

Panel weighs funds for Connect Oregon projects.


What the Oregon Transportation Commission does at its next meeting in August may shape the fate of projects prosed to ease the movement of coal and oil through the state.

The commission action is tied to 37 nonhighway projects, most of them not controversial, seeking to qualify for a share of $42 million in state bonds.

During a marathon session last week in Salem, most of the more than 100 people who testified during the six-hour hearing spoke for or against just three of those 37 projects, all of which would be funded from lottery-backed bonds.

Two projects are in line for $4 million, which industry would match with $7.6 million, to rebuild and expand berths for ocean-going ships at the Port of St. Helens in Columbia City. The third proposes $3 million, matched by $2.3 million from other sources, to separate railroad tracks from vehicle and pedestrian traffic on A Street in Rainier.

Critics say they simply will ease the much-debated movement of coal and oil through Oregon.

“There is no other way to get around it,” says Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper.

Supporters say the work will enable the deep-water port to ship and receive a variety of cargo and create jobs in the process.

“Choosing projects based on the commodities served is a first step in a slippery slope,” says Paul Langner, facility manager for Teevin Bros. of Rainier.

The projects are among the 37 recommended for funding through Connect Oregon, a program for transportation other than highways and bridges. They have already been reviewed by region and mode of transportation – air, bicycle/pedestrian, port, rail and transit – and by a statewide advisory panel.

The list includes money for less-debated work at two TriMet MAX stations, Terminal 6 at the Port of Portland, and the city of Tualatin.

The list began with 104 projects totaling $124 million in requests, three times what was available.

The five-member state commission, which oversees the Oregon Department of Transportation, will adopt a final list at its next meeting Aug. 21-22 in Ontario.

Connect Oregon began in 2005. In each of the first three rounds, lawmakers authorized $100 million; in the most recent round, just $40 million, all in lottery-backed bonds with a 20-year lifespan. The state releases its money when projects are completed.

Port debate

Sen. Betsy Johnson, the Senate co-chairwoman of the legislative budget subcommittee on transportation and economic development, says the selection process developed during the past decade for Connect Oregon focuses solely on linking modes of transportation.

“There has never been mention of any of the commodities transported,” says Johnson, a Democrat from Scappoose whose district contains the proposed port and rail projects. “We are commodity agnostic.”

Rob Rich of Shaver Transportation Co. in Portland has spoken out in favor of coal shipments, which would move coal mined in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana over rail lines to Boardman. Barges at the Port of Morrow would use a proposed coal-loading dock, which awaits permits, to take the coal to the Port of St. Helens for shipment overseas.

“Investing in this dock and this site will allow Columbia County and all of Oregon to be an international shipping site importing and exporting goods from across the Pacific region,” Rich says.

Under the Berth 2 project, $2 million in state money would be matched by $3 million from a subsidiary of Ambre Energy, the Australian company seeking state and federal permits.

Under a second project, Berth 1 at the Port of St. Helens would be renovated with $2 million in state money and $4.6 million from Global Partners, which owns an ethanol plant next to the dock. It proposes to expand shipments of crude oil pumped from the Bakken field in North Dakota and carried by rail to the port.

Both docks date back to 1944, when the Army Corps of Engineers built them as part of the home-front effort during World War II. They can accommodate only barge traffic.

Critics say approval of the Connect Oregon money would constitute de facto approval of the coal and oil projects.

“Please consider the consequences of your approving these two projects,” says Jim Lichatowich of Columbia City.

Rail dispute

A third project would draw $3 million, matched with $2.3 million from other sources, to separate 2,100 feet of rail line down the middle of A Street in Rainier from vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Two crossings would be closed and five more would be upgraded.

“We are committed to the project, regardless of the volume or type of commodity transported over the Portland & Western Railroad in Rainier,” says Joel Haka, president of the short-line railroad and senior vice president of Genesee & Wyoming, its parent company. “Improving A Street was contemplated long before anybody considered moving coal or oil on the Astoria line.”

But several Columbia County residents argued that the separation would be counterproductive to safety.

“More trains can travel from Global Partners’ oil terminal at Port Westward back and forth,” says Paulette Lichatowich of Columbia City.

“Subsidizing the shipping of crude oil from Port Westward will lead to increased crude oil on the train trackage.”

The port projects ranked sixth and seventh, and the Rainier rail project 23rd, on the list of 37 proposed for funding.

Although most of the comments focused on the three projects, one advocacy group questioned the method of grants under Connect Oregon, which relies on lottery-backed bonds because the Oregon Constitution reserves fuel taxes and vehicle fees for highways and bridges. The bonds cannot be spent on other purposes.

Steve Wright of Portland, who spoke for Tax Fairness Oregon, says that businesses benefiting directly ought to share more in the cost of such projects.

“In most cases, these companies could use their own capital to bring in other investments, obtain their own loans, or receive a loan from Connect Oregon itself,” he says.

peterwong@PortlandTribune.com

(503) 385-4899

twitter.com/capitolwong


Fixes description of the Oregon Transportation Commission relationship with the Oregon Department of Transportation.