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As year winds down, locks task force plots way forward

TIDINGS FILE PHOTO - The Willamette Falls Locks closed in 2011, and a task force has been working all year to facilitate a potential reopening down the road. When the Willamette Falls Locks Task Force met for the first time in January 2016, representatives from a variety of state and local bodies generally agreed that the task force should work toward the eventual reopening of the locks.

How that would happen — particularly given the hesitance of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which owns the locks — was unclear.

The task force spent much of the intervening months trying to answer that question and as the year nears its close, a path forward is beginning to materialize.

The task force last met Sept. 13 to review a proposed plan for the expected three-year period during which the USACE will perform a “disposition study” to determine the future of the locks. The disposition study will provide information on the general condition of the locks, potential repairs needed as well as potential future uses, according to a memo provided to task force members. It would also provide “a federal perspective to the economic costs/benefits of the Locks.”

According to West Linn Mayor Russ Axelrod, who represents the city on the task force, there was a general consensus to move forward with a commission approach, wherein a number of new groups would be formed to work with the USACE throughout the disposition study.

“It was a good meeting,” Axelrod said. “The commission approach was favored by everyone.”

The locks, which first opened in 1873 adjacent to the future location of the West Linn Paper Company, were once an oft-used pathway on the Willamette River for freightage and recreation alike. They were closed in 2011, with the USACE citing “extensive corrosion” and a lack of proper funding to keep the locks open for operation.

In 2012, the National Trust for Historic Preservation classified the locks as one of the “most threatened national treasures” in the country.

Former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts was selected to lead the locks task force, and the group also carries a total of 17 representatives from West Linn, Oregon City, the Oregon Senate and House of Representatives, Clackamas County and Metro, among others.

If approved by the task force, the central agency moving forward would be a new “Decision-Making Group” (DMG), which would include representatives from at least one state agency as well as Metro, Clackamas County and three additional governments (the formal proposal identified those governments as one additional state agency, one city and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde). A “facilitating agency” from the state — most likely the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) — would act as the liaison from the DMG to the USACE. Finally, a separate “stakeholder policy advisory group” would be appointed to help provide input on DMG decisions.

Click here to read the full proposal.

These groups would have to be formed by the Oregon Legislature. Should that action take place in early 2017, all of those bodies will work together as the USACE completes the disposition study — which is expected to take between two and three years. Once that study is completed, according the task force memo, “sufficient information will be available so that a decision can be made about the future status and/or ownership, operation and financing of the Locks.”

“Once we get through this disposition study, at that point they’ll come up with a final approach toward governance and how it’s getting paid for,” Axelrod said. “Will there be taxing in the county? Or multiple counties? Or maybe the state — but something that spreads the load out quite a bit.”

Task force members also reviewed a draft budget for the coming years, which had cities providing more than $60,000 in funding from 2017 to 2019 for a three-year total of $200,000.

“The feedback was it might be a little high and we have to spread the load so it’s not too expensive for some entities,” Axelrod said. “They had cities putting in over $60,000 a year over the next few years; that’s kind of a big ask for many cities at the moment.”

Task force coordinators were expected to send out tweaked budget and governance proposals in advance of the next scheduled meeting Oct. 19. Once those documents are prepared, the task force will decide if the October meeting is necessary.

“The goal is still that our work will wrap up this year and this new governance model would be implemented soon next year,” Axelrod said.

Patrick Malee can be reached at 503-636-1281 Ext. 106 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..