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Three local projects in line for state grant funding

Rainier projects get mixed review from Connect Oregon committee


by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Portland & Western Railroad tracks cut through the asphalt along A Street in downtown Rainier. The city has long sought funding for safety improvements on the road, and it is posed to receive nearly $3 million in transportation grants this year. The Port of St. Helens has also lent its support to the project, which could help increase the railroad's capacity for freight train traffic heading to and from the Port Westward industrial park north of Clatskanie.Three Columbia County projects, including the realignment of train tracks on a downtown Rainier street, are among 37 transportation projects proposed for a share of $42 million from state bonds.

The project in Rainier was recommended for full funding last week by the final review committee for ConnectOregon V, the grant program administered through the Oregon Department of Transportation. That project, which is seeking nearly $3 million from the grant program, would separate a segment of the Portland & Western Railroad from the right-of-way along A Street in downtown Rainier.

The city of Rainier and state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, have sought funding for the A Street rail safety project for years.

The ConnectOregon grant would provide matching funds for $2.29 million from other sources.

Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde, who has served on the Board of County Commissioners since 1997, was a member of the review committee.

“We have a real responsibility as a county to make sure that that safety corridor is improved,” Hyde said of the Rainier project Wednesday, June 18.

Meanwhile, two Port of St. Helens projects are in line for a total of $4 million, which industry would match with $7.6 million to rebuild and expand the “Beaver” dock at the Port Westward industrial park north of Clatskanie. The port intends to convert the dock to accommodate two Panamax-class vessels at once.

But another local project was not as fortunate as the A Street and Port Westward applications.

The Columbia County Rider transit system’s Rainier Transit Center project was the 48th-highest priority among the 104 projects evaluated by the committee, putting it outside of the group of 37 for which the committee is recommending funding. CC Rider sought $542,645.60 from ConnectOregon V for the project.

“It was shaking out that it was going to be the transit center or the A Street improvements, and quite frankly, from terms of importance — not to denigrate transit, because it’s very important — but in terms of importance, A Street is just head-and-shoulders above that,” Hyde said after Wednesday’s board meeting. He added, “Safety comes first.”

ConnectOregon has about $42.4 million available to disburse throughout the state for transportation projects this year. Almost $124.4 million in total is being sought from the grant program for projects across Oregon.

Industrial benefit

The Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery, which is operated by Massachusetts-based energy company Global Partners LP as an oil terminal, uses the Beaver dock at Port Westward. Global has applied for a state permit that would allow it to expand its crude oil transloading operations, and the Port Commission approved an increase in the number of unit train cars it is allowed to bring into Port Westward.

Port of St. Helens Executive Director Patrick Trapp said Portland General Electric, another major Port Westward tenant, also has rights to use the 70-year-old dock.

The upgrades, Trapp said, are intended to allow the dock to accommodate up to two vessels weighing as much as 60,000 deadweight tons at a time.

“We’ll have two berths out of that single dock,” said Trapp.

The Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery wants to use the Beaver dock to accommodate Panamax-class tankers, according to a description of the Berth 1 project included in the port’s application to ConnectOregon.

The A Street project also ties into Global’s business interests in Columbia County. Rainier city officials argued last fall that oil train traffic should not increase until safety improvements are made along the downtown street, which is split almost down the centerline by the Portland & Western Railroad tracks.

The Port Commission ultimately compromised. At a November 2013 meeting, it approved an immediate increase in the rail cap for Port Westward, at Global’s request — but delayed approval of a further increase from 24 to 38 trains per month until at least next January, provided “the Port is satisfied that assurances of completion are in place” for unspecified “rail improvements” along the P&W line.

Trapp said the port has already invested more than $15,000 in the rail project.

He called ConnectOregon V “quite an opportunity for economic development dollars” and said he hopes the grants are awarded to port projects as the committee recommends.

Johnson said Oregon should take advantage of Port Westward’s economic potential for the entire state.

The Port Westward site is “one of the finest pieces [of industrial land] remaining in Oregon,” she said.

PGE has two power plants at Port Westward and is completing work on another gas-fired plant. It is one of two major port tenants along with Global, which proposes to put up $4.6 million for expansion of Berth 1 next to its plant.

Global already has invested millions there, Johnson noted.

Increased shipments of ethanol and crude oil are envisioned if the berth is expanded with $2 million from ConnectOregon.

“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, she added.

Hyde echoed Johnson’s comments Wednesday. He said the projects and the priority assigned to them should not be viewed as solely benefiting the oil industry, but as economic and safety benefits for the entire county.

Coal exports

Under the Beaver 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 Port Westward, and then transferred onto ships bound for Asia.

The Berth 2 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.

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.

The company is still seeking approval from 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.

Another coal export proposal is awaiting state review in Longview, Washington.

There was little discussion of the port projects in Portland last week when a state review panel compiled its list of 37 projects recommended for this round of ConnectOregon funding. 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 runway rehabilitations at Astoria, McMinnville and Redmond airports.

All of 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 Aug. 22.

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

ConnectOregon V 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.