State panel wrestles with spending for Connect Oregon plans

Two projects that would ease the much-debated movement of coal and oil through Oregon are among the transportation projects proposed for a share of $42 million from state bonds.

The projects are in line for a total of $4 million, which industry would match with $7.6 million to rebuild and expand the berths at the Port of St. Helens at Columbia City. The berths would accommodate the newest ocean-going ships, which can navigate a deeper 43-foot Columbia River channel.

There was little discussion of those projects in Portland last week when a state review panel compiled its list of 37 projects recommended for this round of Connect Oregon, a program for transportation other than highways and bridges. Several other panels had reviewed them previously by region and mode of transportation.

“Somehow all the panels rated highly the projects set up to encourage the transport of coal and oil through Oregon and off to other places,” said Jody Wiser of Tax Fairness Oregon, a group critical of tax breaks and other subsidies to business.

Aside from those projects, the recommended list includes money for less-debated work at two TriMet MAX stations, Terminal 6 at the Port of Portland, and the cities of Rainier and Tualatin.

All the projects will be considered by the Oregon Transportation Commission, the policy-making arm of the Oregon Department of Transportation, at a public hearing July 17 in Salem. Final action is scheduled Aug. 21 and 22.

But the commission has not changed much during previous funding rounds, Wiser said, “so it will make no difference.”

Supporters say it is a mistake to consider the Port of St. Helens projects only in the context of the controversies arising about coal and oil shipments.

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

They fall within the district of state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who said Oregon should take advantage of their economic potential for the entire state.

The Port Westward site is “one of the finest pieces (of industrial land) remaining in Oregon,” she said, and is next to a railroad terminus.

Portland General Electric has two power plants there and is completing work on another gas-fired plant. It is one of two major port tenants along with Global Partners, which owns an ethanol plant and proposes to put up $4.6 million for expansion of Berth 1 next to the plant.

Johnson said Global Partners already has invested millions there.

Increased shipments of ethanol and crude oil are envisioned if that berth is expanded with $2 million from Connect Oregon.

“The site already is home to a number of well-paying jobs with benefits, the kind of ‘middle-class’ jobs every political figure is talking about supporting,” Johnson said. “There is the potential of creating more of them” if these projects are done.

Coal exports

Under the other 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 to ship coal from the Powder River Basin on the Wyoming-Montana border to Asia. It plans to move the mined coal by train to the Port of Morrow at Boardman, where it would be loaded onto Columbia River barges for Columbia City, and then transferred onto ships bound for Asia.

Ambre Energy already has an agreement with the Port of St. Helens, which has specified that a rebuilt Berth 2 would be open to use by other port tenants.

It is still seeking approval by the Department of State Lands for a permit for a coal-loading terminal at the Port of Morrow, and permits from other state and federal agencies. Other active coal terminal proposals are at Bellingham, Wash., and Longview, Wash.

This project was ranked highest by the panels evaluating marine/port and rail applications, but fourth and fifth by two regional panels. In contrast, regional panels ranked the Berth 1 project first and second; the marine/port panel, second, and the rail panel, sixth.

Connect Oregon is intended to use money from bonds backed by the Oregon Lottery for air, bicycle/pedestrian, marine/port, rail and transit projects. Economic benefits, job growth and matching amounts from other sources are taken into account in rating projects.

Contentious round

Bill Thorndike Jr. of Medford led the statewide panel that spent a day looking at the recommendations from all the other groups.

He said the process blends regional priorities with state money.

“Gov. Kitzhaber is committed to the regional solutions process to figure out how the state can work more closely with the regions for what is needed,” said Thorndike, president of Medford Fabrication, a manufacturer. “The more local participation you can get, the better off you are.”

Thorndike said his panel was thrown a new wrinkle this round, when lawmakers handed it the task of integrating money for bicycle and pedestrian projects with the other modes.

At one point, such projects would have claimed a third of the $42 million available, though their final total was scaled back to about $7 million. Bike-share proposals in Eugene and Tigard were dropped, and a Corvallis-to-Albany bikeway trail was reduced from $4.8 million to $2 million in state aid.

“We have a new kid on the block who’s eating all the steak,” said Alan Unger, a Deschutes County commissioner.

Two observers agreed that lawmakers need to clarify bicycle and pedestrian funding.

“These projects should not be compared to all the other modes,” said Elsa Porter of Tax Fairness Oregon. “They should have their own dollar amount or their own quota.”

Betsy Johnson, who’s Senate co-chairwoman of the legislative budget subcommittee on transportation and economic development, said Connect Oregon was not intended for such projects.

Either a dollar limit per project is needed, she said, “or we need to figure out a pool of money from which bicycle and pedestrian projects can compete among themselves.”

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