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Dock funding is denied again

The Oregon Transportation Commission has again denied state money for a much-debated renovation of a Columbia River dock that became a proxy in a wider debate over coal exports to Asia.

The commission voted 3-1 Thursday for the allocation of $7 million in lottery-backed bonds to six other projects under Connect Oregon, which funds projects other than highways and bridges.

Three of the six projects are in Rainier. The others are in Eugene, Salem and Sisters.

COURTESY PHOTO PORT OF ST. HELENS - The Oregon Transportation Commission on Thursday, March 19, again denied the allocation of lottery-backed dollars applied for by the Port of St. Helens for renovation of a World War II-era dock at Port Westward. The port was seeking $2 million in funds from the ConnectOregon program. Questions about the port's ability to provide the $3 million match for the project, which was associated with a controversial proposed coal transloading operation, appears to have factored in the OTC's denial. The short list omits the top-ranked project, which proposed $2 million for renovation of a World War II-era dock at Port Westward near Clatskanie. The Port of St. Helens proposed to match it with $3 million to develop it for use by ocean-going ships.

The project also ranked high Aug. 22, when a divided commission dropped proposed funding for it but gave the go-ahead to 36 other projects qualifying for $40.3 million. Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber removed the commission chairwoman, Catherine Mater of Corvallis, five months later.

A Jan. 7 review by a panel ranked the project atop a list of 31 considered for almost $7 million remaining in Connect Oregon money.

But the project remained caught in a wider debate about a proposal by Ambre Energy, the Australian company that seeks to export coal to Asia.

The coal would be mined in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, then shipped by rail to Boardman, where it would be loaded onto barges on the Columbia River bound for the Port of St. Helens. Ocean-going ships there would take the coal to Asia.

Commission member David Lohman said it was appropriate for the commission to consider the longterm environmental effects of the project, based on a state policy that commits Oregon to take measures to prepare for climate change.

“The nature of the projected commodity (coal) can be as relevant as the nature of the projected jobs,” said Lohman, who’s a lawyer in Medford.

Lohman said legitimate questions were raised about the proposed $3 million match, which initially was proffered by Ambre Energy, and whether the project was truly ready for construction by the port.

But without naming anyone, Lohman rebutted accusations by Mater and others about whether Port of St. Helens officials engaged in “deliberate misrepresentation” of statements on their application.

“The scrutiny that Connect Oregon applications receive from multiple review committees and staff, which consist of knowledgeable people with different perspectives, makes it highly unlikely that anyone would have the temerity to provide misleading information,” Lohman said.

Reactions both ways

Voting for funding the other projects this round were Lohman, Alando Simpson of Portland and Chairwoman Tammy Baney of Bend. Commission member Susan Morgan, also a Douglas County commissioner, was the lone dissenter.

Baney and Morgan had been on the short end last summer of the 3-2 vote that dropped state funding for the dock project in the first round.

Morgan said afterward that the vote could have been 2-2 again, but that the commission needed to resolve the funding debate. Gov. Kate Brown, who succeeded Kitzhaber on Feb. 18, has not named someone to Mater’s seat.

“I have no doubt this project would have moved forward if the Pacific transloading and the Ambre Energy proposal for coal was not tied into it,” Morgan said.

Morgan said rural communities are sorely in need of projects that will boost their economic prospects, given higher-than-average unemployment and lower-than-average per-capita income.

“These are the kind of projects that are going to revitalize rural Oregon,” she said.

“I think that to deny the people in Columbia County the opportunity to do this — to add to the wealth and strengthen the social structure of their county — is a negative way to go.”

Columbia Riverkeeper was among the numerous groups opposed to the project.

“Coal export harms our river, public health and our salmon. Oregonians shouldn’t be forced to provide subsidies for projects with such broad negative impacts to our state,” said Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky of Columbia Riverkeeper.

Project list

The projects that received funding on Thursday, in order:

• City of Eugene, $909,066 requested, matched by $227,267, for a 24-station, 170-bicycle Bike Share site that will link to a four-station, 40-bicycle site at the University of Oregon.

• Teevin Bros. Land & Timber Co., $2.34 million requested, matched with $1 million from the company, to enable it to expand its site for rail-to-barge transfers in Rainier.

• Sause Bros., $965,148 requested, matched with $519,695 from the company, to acquire a reach stacker and forklift truck to enable it to move heavier cargo from trucks and trains onto barges in Rainier.

• Sisters Airport, $733,259 requested, matched by $916,574 from the airport, for various improvements.

• Columbia County Ride Transportation, $542,646 requested, matched with $135,661, for a transit center in Rainier.

• Salem-Keizer Transit District, $1 million requested, matched with $4 million from other sources, for a transit center in south Salem.

pwong@PamplinMedia.com

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