Advocates say process 'unusual,' opponents say panel should have rejected 2 other projects.

Both sides have criticized the Oregon Transportation Commission in connection with its denial of $2 million for rebuilding a dock at the Port of St. Helens to accommodate ocean-going ships — and potential coal exports to Asia.

Project advocates say the commission majority did not follow the elaborate process laid out by the Oregon Department of Transportation for Connect Oregon funding, which goes to projects other than highways and bridges.

Project opponents, while praising the denial, say the commission should have denied funds for two other projects they assert will ease crude-oil shipments through Oregon.

The commission acted on a 3-2 vote at its Aug. 22 meeting in Ontario. It is believed to be the first time the commission has rejected an ODOT recommendation for projects in the 10-year history of Connect Oregon.

The $2 million for the dock work was to be matched with $3 million from a subsidiary of Ambre Energy, the Australian company seeking to ship coal to Asia. Its application was widely considered to be a proxy in the debate about coal exports.

Although Gov. John Kitzhaber has been critical of coal exports, his transportation policy adviser, Karmen Fore, told the commission the governor’s only consideration on this vote was for how the projects contribute to a statewide transportation infrastructure.

She said it is up to other agencies to make their own judgments on regulatory permits and other matters.

Unusual judgment

Advocates say the project, which ranked seventh of the 37 proposed for funding, should not have been singled out by the commission majority. Projects are evaluated by modes — air, bicycle/pedestrian, port, rail and transit — and by regional and statewide panels, as well as the Oregon Business Development Department.

“The commission did not understand the context under which four previously successful rounds of Connect Oregon have operated,” says Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who attended the meeting in Ontario.

“For (a majority of) the commission to substitute their judgment for that of other agencies, I found it unusual.”

Johnson also is Senate chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget subcommittee on transportation. The three Connect Oregon projects that drew most of the public comments, pro and con, are in her Senate district.

Nehalem Mayor Shirley Kalkhoven, a former League of Oregon Cities president who has been involved in transportation panels for years, complained about how the meeting was conducted by a newly appointed chairwoman. She also says the other newest commission member, though well-meaning, proposed to allocate the $2 million from the St. Helens project to an area commission on transportation for unspecified work.

“I believe it was very unfortunate that a new, untried commission had to deal with this final step of the Connect Oregon process,” Kalkhoven wrote in a letter to Kitzhaber.

Not far enough

Meanwhile, while they praised the commission for denying the $2 million for one dock project, others say the commission did not go far enough.

Among the 36 Connect Oregon projects the commission approved for a share of $40 million in lottery-backed bonds are the renovation of another 70-year-old dock at the Port of St. Helens, $2 million, and a rail separation project in the city of Rainier, $3 million.

Those projects rank sixth and 23rd on the statewide list.

Global Partners, which owns an ethanol plant next to Berth 1, proposes a $4.6 million match for the port to expand shipments of crude oil pumped from the Bakken field in North Dakota and carried by rail. The oil would be refined elsewhere.

The Rainier project proposes $2.3 million from other sources to separate 2,100 feet of railroad track from vehicle and pedestrian traffic on A Street.

Opponents say the commission should have blocked money for those projects.

“With this action, the OTC has just given a green light to increased speed and number of explosive Bakken crude oil trains traveling through our communities,” says Darrel Whipple, a retired teacher who lives near Rainier. His comments were included in a press release by an opposition coalition after the vote.

Project sponsors have 180 days to sign contracts with ODOT, and ODOT releases the state money only after projects are completed.

Other issues

The projects have hit other snags.

On Aug. 18, the Oregon Department of State Lands denied Ambre’s request for a permit to build a coal-loading dock at the Port of Morrow in Boardman. Ambre says it is considering its options.

Ambre proposes to move coal mined in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana via rail to Boardman, where it would be loaded onto barges for St. Helens, and then ships to Asia.

On Aug. 25, the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals returned a rezoning decision to Columbia County commissioners, who had approved changing 837 acres from farmland to industrial use in the Port Westward industrial park at the Port of St. Helens. The decision is not a denial, but it requires the county to do further work to justify the rezoning.

Reasons for and against

On Aug. 22, the Oregon Transportation Commission vote came down to whether the members should simply ratify the projects already recommended by ODOT and reviewed by numerous panels, or to exercise its discretion based on members’ own judgment.

Voting in the majority to delete funding for the Berth 2 project at the Port of St. Helens were commission members Dave Lohman of Medford, Catherine Mater of Corvallis and Alando Simpson of Portland.

“I think we have an obligation to ask ourselves if we are approving projects that would limit the ability of future generations to meet their needs,” Lohman said in a recording made available by the ODOT staff.

Mater said she had no problem with funding for two other related projects. But the ready-to-go status of the Berth 2 project, Mater said, “is where I begin to get some heartburn.”

Voting in the minority were members Tammy Baney, a Deschutes County commissioner, and Susan Morgan, a Douglas County commissioner. They said all the projects complied with the applicable requirements — and that lawmakers might think twice about future funding for nonhighway projects and the commission’s role if the commission started imposing its own judgments.

“The Legislature is going to be taking a look at what we do here” as lawmakers consider a transportation funding plan in the 2015 session, said Morgan, who was in the Oregon House for 10 years.

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Updates story posted Aug. 22; some material is picked up from the earlier story.

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