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Photo Credit: PORT OF ST. HELENS - An aerial image of Port Westward shows existing industrial uses at the industrial park in Clatskanie. An application for state funding to renovate a dock at the port has stirred controversy among state and Port of St. Helens officials.

As the Oregon Transportation Commission considers whether to grant $2 million in ConnectOregon funds to the Port of St. Helens and other agencies, the commission’s former chairwoman is speaking out.

Catherine Mater, who lost her job as chairwoman earlier this month after vocalizing her opposition to a project vying for state funds that was tied to coal transloading, stated Monday, Jan. 26, that the Oregon Department of Transportation “lacks oversight” on projects considered for Connect Oregon funding. ConnectOregon was created in 2005 as a means to use state lottery money to invest in nonhighway transportation and economic development.

Last August, after awarding nearly $40.4 million in funds to 36 multimodal projects, the OTC rejected the port’s ConnectOregon V application for $2 million.

The port said the grant would pay for improvements to an outdated dock at its Port Westward industrial park along the Columbia River in Clatskanie. If approved, the port would have to match the grant with an additional $3 million needed to complete the project.

Reinforcements to the dock would accommodate larger, modern ocean-going ships, bringing in more revenue to the port and Columbia County as a whole, the application stated.

When the application was submitted in 2013, the port expected Pacific Transloading, a subsidiary of Ambre Energy, to use the dock on its route to ship coal to Asia. The additional $3 million would be paid by Ambre, the port stated.

While some viewed OTC’s denial of the port’s request an ideological assault on coal projects, Mater said the denial was based on qualifications, not commodities.

Mater alleges the port falsified information on its application for state funds.

“The Port had no evidence from Ambre Energy ever committing to the project match as all other projects recommended for funding were able to produce,” Mater stated via email Wednesday. “This should have been identified early on in the three-tier review process, but wasn’t. Only at the Commission level was the Port asked to document Ambre Energy match.”

Mater said the port, when asked, couldn’t prove it was prepared to pay the $3 million itself, if Ambre backed out.

Port officials are disputing Mater’s claims, however, saying they provided all of the required information Mater asked for and met all the the necessary requirements to be considered for funds.

“We tried to approach this very deliberatley and professionally and said, ‘If you have any questions about this, we’ll be happy to provide any information,’” Patrick Trapp, executive director of the Port of St. Helens, said. “In fact, we were in full compliance with all the criteria.”

Trapp said Mater’s insistence that the port’s project would first require a lease with Department of State Lands and that it wasn’t “construction ready” is wrong.

“Ms. Mater kept asserting that this additional permit was needed,” Trapp said. “I talked to DSL and they told me [Mater] took things out of context.”

Mater said the current review process for ConnectOregon projects lacks the appropriate level of scrutiny.

Before project applications reach the OTC for final review and approval, they are reviewed by three separate committees, Chris Cummings, freight program manager with ODOT, explained.

Each project is examined based on five considerations.

“ODOT modal staff — experts — they review each project and score each project based on how well they meet considerations,” Cummings said. He emphasized that not all projects are expected to be ready to break ground, but committees score project proposals based on an applicant’s ability to move a project forward.

He said while it rarely happens, if an agency is granted money and doesn’t deliver its project, it has to pay back any money that was awarded.

“ConnectOregon is built somewhat on the premise that you don’t need to have your engineering done prior to applying,” he said. “It’s somewhat encouraging for these applicants that apply, knowing that they don’t have to spend $200,000 prior to applying. The readiness is a question, but it’s not an absolute.”

The port’s application isn’t the only one that troubles Mater. She cited a bicycle path project from Corvallis to Albany, which made it through the review process without Benton County having secured rights to use the railroad’s right-of-way.

“I should be clear, I think the ConnectOregon program is an excellent program for Oregon transportation and without question needs to be continued,” Mater clarified. “But it’s clear that additional ODOT oversight is needed to ensure when projects get to the Commission level they are properly vetted against real time existing conditions, not just what is stated in the application.”

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