Could a public corporation save the Willamette Falls Locks?
The Willamette Falls Locks Commission is still hoping for several jurisdictions to help fund its efforts to form a public corporation and get the locks back open in the next five-to-10 years.
After 138 years of helping recreational and commercial boats navigate Willamette Falls, the locks closed in 2011 because the U.S. Army Corps or Engineers determined that excessive corrosion of the facility gates made them a public safety hazard
Several cities, including West Linn, Wilsonville, Oregon City, Newberg and Milwuakie, along with the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde, Metro, Yamhill and Marion counties and other entities, agreed to financially support the commission when it was first established in 2017.
Now that the commission is trying to get a public corporation established to own and operate the locks, they are asking for similar commitments from the same jurisdictions for the next three to five years as capital repairs are made and ownership of the locks is transferred from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the new corporation.
The commission hopes that the state Legislature will pass legislation establishing the public corporation, the Willamette Falls Locks Authority, in the coming 2020 short session and has spent the past several months working with legislators on a bill to do just that.
A draft of the bill sent to the commission before its November meeting states that the authority shall own and oversee the locks to "[Enhance] the economic vitality of Oregon through facilitating the resiliency and navigability of the Willamette River," and operate the locks for commercial, transportation, recreational, cultural, historic heritage and tourism uses.
The commission is also hoping the Oregon State Legislature grants around $14 million in bond funds for locks repairs.
"We've done a lot of work with the Legislature to make sure that the bill language is as good as it can be," said West Linn Mayor Russ Axelrod, who also chairs the commission.
Axelrod said the commission has done everything it can to advocate for the legislation, including testifying to several legislative committees; his only concern is that another Republican walkout over a potential climate change bill may disrupt the short session, which lasts only five weeks.
The mayor added that federal lawmakers Rep. Kurt Schrader and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkely, are on board with reopening the locks and said he has worked with them on the possibility of federal grants to help fund the project.
According to Axelrod, the City of West Linn has agreed to an intention to support the new public corporation with at least $10,000 a year.
This commitment is for phase one of the project, or 2020 until the locks are open (the commission hopes that will be around 2024).
Oregon City also has promised to contribute $10,000 a year for phase one. Other cities and stakeholders are working on their commitments, Axelrod said.
The commission expects the authority to have around $350,000 in annual expenses for phase one.
Once the locks are open, the annual cost to operate and maintain them is estimated around $605,000.
According to Axelrod, the actual cost will depend on a number of factors, like the technology used to maintain and operate the locks as well as how many days per year they are open.
As a public corporation that doesn't earn profit, the authority would only have to earn enough to cover these costs, which they plan to do through marine fuel taxes and by charging fees for activities such as commodity barging, recreation and tourism boating.
Like the commission, the members of the authority would be appointed by the governor, according to the proposed legislation.
The bill suggests that seven-to-11 members composing the authority could be representatives from federally recognized Oregon Indian tribes, regional or municipal governments, the marine or tourism industries or people with experience in finance, marketing and economic development.
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