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Coal export project gets docked

State panel denies $2 million, but OKs $2 million for second dock for oil shipments.


The Oregon Transportation Commission denied state funding Friday for renovation of a dock that critics say would ease coal exports through Oregon to Asia.

But among the 36 other nonhighway projects that will share $40 million in state bonds is the expansion of another dock at the Port of St. Helens to accommodate shipments of oil.

Most of the Connect Oregon projects, which will be funded from lottery-backed bonds, are not controversial. The staff of the Oregon Department of Transportation recommended approval of all 37 projects, which were winnowed down from 104 requests totaling $124 million, three times what was available.

But by a 3-2 vote Friday while meeting in Ontario, the commission — the policy-making panel that oversees ODOT — took the unusual step of dropping $2 million recommended for Berth 2 at the Port of St. Helens in Columbia City.

The project would make Berth 2 capable of handling ocean-going ships at the deep-water port.

The money was to be matched by $3 million from a subsidiary of Ambre Energy, the Australian company seeking to ship coal to Asia. Its plan was to move coal mined in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana over rail lines to Boardman.

Barges at the Port of Morrow would have used a proposed coal-loading dock to move the coal down the Columbia River to the Port of St. Helens. But earlier this week, the Oregon Department of State Lands rejected a permit sought by Ambre Energy to build the coal-loading dock at the Port of Morrow. The company is weighing its options.

The Transportation Commission let stand another ODOT recommendation for $2 million in state money to renovate Berth 1 at the Port of St. Helens. Global Partners, which owns an ethanol plant next to that dock, proposes to match it with $4.6 million to expand shipments of oil pumped from the Bakken field in North Dakota and carried by rail to the port.

Three projects targeted

During a six-hour hearing July 17 in Salem, the commission heard from 114 people, most of whom commented for or against these two projects and a third rail-separation project in Rainier.

A number of environmental groups and area residents weighed in against all three projects. Advocates said the dock projects would enable the port to ship and receive a variety of cargo and create jobs, and the rail-separation project was a long-standing matter of safety.

ODOT reported a total of 9,400 comments, many of them on petitions, excluding another 1,000 filed with the office of Gov. John Kitzhaber.

The decision came down to whether the commission 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 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 that drew criticism.

But the ready-to-go status of the Berth 2 project, Mater said, “is where I begin to get some heartburn.”

She said unlike the Berth 1 project at the Port of St. Helens, which would ease oil shipments, the Department of State Lands has raised questions about the Berth 2 project – and that commission members became aware of those concerns only after the July 17 hearing.

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, Morgan said.

Baney and Morgan proposed an alternative that would have designated the port, rather than the Ambre Energy subsidiary, to put up the $3 million match within the 180 days allowed for the project to sign a contract with the state. But that motion failed 3-2.

The commission deferred a decision about what to do with the $2 million.

Coalition dissatisfied

Also on the approved list is a project separating railroad tracks from vehicle and pedestrian traffic on A Street in Rainier. The state share is $3 million, matched by $2.3 million from other sources. Some critics said the project would allow greater train traffic and speeds – from 10 to 25 mph -- but advocates said the project would close two unsafe crossings and upgrade five more.

A coalition praised the commission’s rejection of funds for the coal dock but says it will continue to oppose the other two projects. It took issue with Mater’s statement that those projects are ready for construction.

“There are huge safety concerns that must be addressed immediately,” says Darrel Whipple, a retired teacher who lives near Rainier, and whose comments were part of a press release by the coalition after the commission vote.

“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.”

Among the other projects approved by the commission are less-debated work at two TriMet MAX stations, Terminal 6 at the Port of Portland, and the city of Tualatin.

Connect Oregon began in 2005. In each of the first three rounds, lawmakers authorized $100 million, and in 2011-13, $40 million, all from bonds repaid with Oregon Lottery proceeds over 20 years.

The state releases its share when projects are completed. Projects must start within six months of state approval of the Connect Oregon money.

The money is meant for transportation other than highways and bridges, which benefit from fuel taxes and vehicle fees earmarked by the Oregon Constitution.

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Adds recorded comments from Oregon Transportation Commission members during meeting, reaction from project critics after commission vote. Corrects spelling of Alando Simpson.