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Hermo Road improvements in the works

Photo Credit: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Dave Hill, director of Columbia County's roads department, shows plans for paving Hermo Road at Port Westward. Construction on the road is being bid on through JH Kelly.

Columbia County appears to have quietly negotiated with the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery for bidding of construction improvements on Hermo Road at Port Westward in Clatskanie.

Currently, Hermo Road is a narrow gravel pathway at the industrial park, which is owned by the Port of St. Helens. Most of the nearly 3-mile-long road is owned by the county, with a portion owned by the port, according to the county’s Roads Department.

The road improvements will pave the way for increased industrial activity at Port Westward, which includes industrial and agricultural land.

In 2007, the county included, as part of its Port Westward urban renewal district plan, improvement of the road as an additional access point to Port Westward. Funding for the estimated $12.2 million project never came through, Dave Hill, director of the Roads Department, said last week.

“It’s been in the plans for quite some time to make that a main entry to Port Westward,” Hill said. “The county doesn’t have the funding for it, so we’re talking with the bio-refinery to see if there’s some money to put into the road.”

Hill said revised estimates indicate laying asphalt and conducting preparation will cost about $12.5 million.

County and Port of St. Helens officials indicated the bio-refinery would be funding the project, but CPBR officials declined to confirm that.

Earlier this week, a representative from a Columbia County-based construction company confirmed his company, along with other companies, was invited by JH Kelly, an industrial construction company owned by Global Partners, LP, to bid on the project late last month.

Global Partners owns CPBR, which operates a crude oil transloading plant at Port Westward.

County commissioners never publicly approved a bid process or publicly designated JH Kelly to handle bidding for a public road.

“That’s not unlike a lot of other big projects where they build the road to public specifications,” Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde said, when asked why the negotiations and bidding were done without public notice.

In August 2014, CPBR introduced its plans to improve the road as part of its planned expansion and revival of ethanol production at Port Westward.

Now, the project is being quietly bid on by construction companies, but the county has yet to issue a permit for the road’s improvement, Hill said. He said plans to improve the road are in the discussion phase now, and a permit needs to be issued before any changes can be made to the road.

“We’re currently just in discussion about that with Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery,” Hill said. “It’s intended to maybe happen this summer. There’s no definite plans yet.”

While construction might not be definite, the bidding process appears to be locked in and moving forward.

Hyde said the bio-refinery’s funding of the long-anticipated road improvements is a win for taxpayers and the urban renewal district that encompasses the road.

“If they want to specnd their money instead of the county using public funds, we’re happy about that,” Hyde said.

The road construction isn’t a win for everyone.

Mint farmer Mike Seely and his wife operate Seely Family Farm on agricultural land near Port Westward. Seely said he fears the impacts road construction could have on his spring and summer harvest.

“We understand absolutely that [Portland General Electric] needs this as an access road in, because the trains are creating issues on clunky roads,” Seely said. “I’m for it because PGE has been a great neighbor for us. At the same time, we are concerned about construction impacts on us and our ability to harvest our fields in a timely manner.”

Seely said he’s most concerned about heavy delays on Hermo Road during prime harvest season, when semi-trucks use the road to access his farm every few minutes.

Dan Luckett, the bio-refinery’s plant manager, said it is working with the county and PGE, which leases land at Port Westward, to find solutions for improving the road.

According to PGE, Global Partners has a responsibility to improve the road, under a sublease contract with the port.

Luckett declined to state how much money, if any, his company has committed toward the project.

A resolution adopted by the Port of St. Helens in 2013 addressing rail car limits at Port Westward, indicated the bio-refinery’s plans to invest $50 million to $70 million in the industrial park.

“This investment would include improvements to Hermo Road, the dock, construction of additional storage facilities, and rail transfer operations ...” the resolution states.

“CPBR is an active partner with Columbia County, PGE, local stakeholders and the Port of St. Helens to help advance a solution to Hermo Road so that access and safety needs are satisfied for all parties involved,” Luckett stated. “We look forward to continuing this partnership and are committed to helping facilitate a resolution.”

Hill said this isn’t the first time a private company has paid for and handled upgrades or repairs to a public road, but it’s the first time a company has handled the process for a large-scale, costly project like this.