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TriMet bucks help keep boats afloat

Spirit, Sternwheeler will be modified to fit under transit bridge
by: Jaime Valdez The Portland Spirit will relocate from the east side of the Willamette River for three years and be modified to fit under TriMet’s new transit bridge.

TriMet will pay a local cruise boat company about $2 million to stay in business after construction of the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail bridge. Ironically, company co-owner Dan Yates has long criticized local governments for not supporting the business community. He has accused City Council members and other elected officials of putting planning ahead of a strong economy. Now TriMet has agreed to pay Yates’ company about $1.5 million to replace its 150-foot dock along the east bank of the river, where the bridge will touch down. TriMet will also pay about $500,000 to lower the height of the company’s two largest vessels so they will fit under the bridge when it is complete. They are the Portland Spirit and Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler. Both were booted from their home when construction on the bridge began on July 1. TriMet will also pay the company $2 million to rent some of its property as a staging area for construction equipment while the bridge is bring built. Despite the payments, Yates has not changed his tune about how government does not understand business. He says the money will barely allow the company to survive during the next three years, when it will be forced to moor and refuel its largest vessels elsewhere. Yates also says the company will have to pay higher property taxes and rental fees for the larger dock when it is completed. “This is anything but a sweetheart deal,” says Yates. Creating jobs The 7.3-mile Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project extends MAX service from the southern edge of Portland State University to downtown Milwaukie. It includes a bridge over the Willamette River that will carry MAX trains, buses, streetcars, bicyclists and pedestrians. Creating jobs was a recurring theme during the June 30 ceremony to kick off construction of the light-rail project. Federal, state, regional and local officials all talked about how the $1.5 billion project would create thousands of jobs (directly and indirectly) during the next three years, beginning with construction of the bridge between South Waterfront and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, where the ceremony was held. “The bridge and the overall project will link east and west, improve and expand transit, and, most important, create up to 14,000 jobs when we most need them,” said TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane. But as payments to Yates’ company, American Waterways show, TriMet is concerned about saving existing jobs, too. For example, TriMet also accelerated its purchase of a piece of property along the light-rail route, at 338 S.E. 17th Ave., where JOIN, a nonprofit organization serving the homeless, was located. TriMet bought the group’s office building ahead of schedule for $490,000, so JOIN could move to a new headquarters at 1435 N.E. 81st Ave. TriMet has helped other businesses relocate during previous transit projects. For example, during the construction of the Westside MAX line in 1996, TriMet covered more than $200,000 in costs for Parr Lumber to relocate and make way for the Willow Creek/Southwest 185th Avenue Transit Center. In 2007, TriMet paid $160,000 for Triad Mechanical to relocate as part of the Interstate MAX construction project. Such assistance is required by the Federal Transit Administration, which is paying 50 percent of the cost of the Portland-Milwaukie project. “Most of our business support is low-cost, but has, we think, a high value. It has ranged from small low-interest loans to business consulting services to the TriMet ‘lunch bus’ bringing customers to impacted restaurants,” says Jillian Detweiler, TriMet’s real estate director. Such assistance isn’t always enough. A number of downtown Portland businesses failed during the renovation of the Transit Mall that extended MAX service from Old Town to Portland State University. But because much of the work occurred at the height of the recession, it is difficult to know for certain which of those businesses would have survived anyway. Docked at the fountain According to Detweiler and other TriMet officials, the $2 million being spent to help American Waterways survive is probably the largest amount ever dedicated to a single business. The officials say the amount is justified for two reasons. First, the company needs to continue operating both during and after the construction of the bridge. And second, there was no other place on the Willamette River where it could relocate. American Waterways was founded in 1994. It is probably best known for its two largest vessels, the Portland Spirit and the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler. The company owns three smaller vessels, too — the Willamette Star, the Crystal Dolphin and the Outrageous Jetboat. They offer tours of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, including lunch and dinner trips. Beginning in 1994, the company has been based along the east bank of the Willamette River just south of what is now the Portland Opera building. There it owns a dock with refueling and maintenance equipment. Passengers for private tours board at this location. Passengers for public tours on the Portland Spirit and Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler board at a dock near the Salmon Spring Fountains in Tom McCall Waterfront Park, which is leased by the company. The alignment for the Willamette River transit bridge was formally approved in 2008. To Yates’ dismay, the location of the eastside construction barge will prevent the Portland Spirit and Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler from reaching the dock during the bridge construction. When the bridge is finished, it will be so low over the dock that the two vessels cannot maneuver under it. After lengthy negotiations with TriMet, the company worked out solutions. The Portland Spirit will be based at the Salmon Springs Fountain until the bridge is finished. The Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler will be based in Cascade Locks. Both will be refueled on Swan Island. TriMet will pay to replace the dock and lower the maximum heights of both vessels so they can return to their original base when the bridge is finished. Yates estimates that the $2 million in rent payments will help offset the company’s higher costs during the next three years. “Hopefully, everything will be enough to keep us whole,” Yates says.