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Without proper studies, Port risks harming future investment

I have been wondering for the last year why the Port of St. Helens does things that hurt long-term job creation, lower property values outside of Clatskanie and reduce tax revenues in the Port District.

At first, I thought the Port was just an out-of-control secretive government agency using taxpayer funds and government tax-exempt status to become bigger with no regard for the taxpayers and businesses that have funded it. Now I am not sure what is going on.

The Port wants to enter into the business of oil unit trains. Note that unit trains are very long trains, often 100 cars or more in length, and can cause huge transportation issues. A majority voice of the Port and some local politicians argue the unit trains are inevitable and uncontrollable so we should welcome them and encourage them with little concern for the economic, transportation, safety or quality of life impacts. I say this is wrong.

The idea of the Port agreeing to transfer the lease of the old ethanol plant and allowing unlimited oil shipping is a poor business decision. When you realize that oil-carrying unit trains are not in lieu of, but in addition to, the still pending contract for coal unit trains with Kinder Morgan, this is insanity.

The Port seems willing to change the future of the entire county without doing an economic impact study on current and future businesses, transportation impact study or a study on the impacts of quality of life for county residents. These basic planning tools and facts provide information so that rational business decisions can be made. A few years from now, when there is increased traffic congestion, lower property values, reduced economic activity and other associated problems, the Port will say, “Who could have known?” The answer is they already know or they are incompetent for not doing the necessary groundwork before entering huge uncontrolled agreements.

Is it possible that they have not done these studies because they know the outcome will not support their decisions?

The Port is correct in that it cannot tell the railroad what to do, but through the Port’s contracts with the oil or coal companies, the Port can indirectly control what happens in this county. If the coal or oil companies are not willing to agree to fair terms, then the Port needs to be smart enough to walk away.

Contract terms could limit the number of rail cars per day or prevent unit trains traveling through the county at inappropriate times, such as rush hour, or during Rainier Days in the Park or the Sauerkraut Festival.

The Port is creating huge transportation uncertainty because it is not doing the necessary groundwork to see if its business plans really make sense.

This economic uncertainty will hurt job creation and economic growth in Columbia County.

With all this said, I still wonder why the Port is entering into bulk commodity unit train business deals and why there are some local politicians supporting this. Unit trains generally do not create many long-term permanent jobs and they hurt many existing businesses. Every first-year economics student learns that good transportation is one of the keys to economic development. So why would the Port squander the county’s transportation capacity and hurt future growth and job creation?

Brian Rosenthal has several small commercial business and industrial investments in Scappoose.