Roll On, Columbia

Roll On, Columbia

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

After years of planning, funding battles and regulatory hoops, the proponents of the Columbia River channel-deepening project are finally poised to do what they set out to do 14 years ago - deepen the river''s lower navigation channel.

The scope of the project is huge, as are the economic stakes for Washington and Oregon. Each year ocean-going vessels traversing the Columbia River haul about $14 billion worth of goods from the region to and from world markets. Shipments include grain, mineral bulk cargoes such as potash and aluminum ore, breakbulk cargoes such as steel and forest products, automobiles from Asia and containerized cargo.

The lifeline of this activity for six river ports is the 103.5-mile, 40-foot-deep Columbia River navigation channel. Also known as the Lower Columbia River, it is the world''s second-largest grain export system next to the Mississippi River.

In recent years, the problem confronting these ports - including Portland and St. Helens in Oregon, and Kalama, Longview, Vancouver and Woodland in Washington - is that sections of the channel are not quite deep enough to accommodate today''s larger, deep-draft vessels. Operators on the lower Columbia cannot fully load their vessels and safely navigate the entire channel - a fact that exacts a huge economic penalty for them and for shippers in the region.

The ports formed a coalition - the Columbia River Channel Coalition - and the project to deepen the channel to 43-feet was initiated back in 1989. A first breakthrough was reached in 1999 when a project feasibility study was completed. The project was authorized in the Water Resources Development Act of 1999, with a commitment to fund 65 percent of its $148.4 million total estimated cost.

While that might seem a bargain price for dredging more than 100 miles of any river, that is not what will happen. The coalition said it is a misconception that a three-foot trench will be dug from Astoria, Ore., to Portland.

"Actually, ''deepening'' in this sense means removing shoals and the tops of sand waves in the channel, most of which is already deeper than 43 feet," the coalition said. Only 3.5 percent of the massive Columbia River system, which stretches from the mouth of the river near Astoria to Portland-Vancouver, is affected by the channel-deepening project.

As always, funding is a complicated matter, more so in this case because it involves two states, six port jurisdictions and the federal government. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will construct and manage the project.

Oregon''s and Washington''s shares of the project are estimated to cost $27.7 million each.

Washington state recently re-appropriated $17.7 million for the project and included this in the state budget; $7.5 million is secure and will be funded through the Washington State Department of Transportation and $2.5 million was expended in 2001-2002.

The Oregon state legislature currently is in the process of re-appropriating state matching funds of $27.7 million in the reauthorization of lottery bonds for 2003-05.

While state funding mechanisms are in place, getting the federal government to pony up its share has been more difficult. To date only $10 million in federal funds have been appropriated. Last year channel-deepening supporters were pushing for a $20 million federal appropriation for fiscal 2004 but got only $3.5 million. And they received that only after dodging a Bush administration bullet to reclassify the project as "new" and zero it out of the budget. Congress appropriated $4.5 million for the project in fiscal 2001 and $2 million in fiscal 2003.

In the fiscal 2005 federal budget issued this month, channel advocates hoped for a $15 million appropriation. Instead the Bush budget included a "placeholder" provision for the deepening project but not an actual amount. Another struggle to gain channel money to the channel looms this year.

In January channel-deepening supporters celebrated after the Corps of Engineers released a long-awaited "Record of Decision" for the project.

The milestone action is a technical but critical step that paves the way for construction and dredging work to begin this year. The Corps'' Record of Decision analysis concluded that every $1 invested in channel deepening yields $1.66 in national economic return.

"With this ROD issued, all federal environmental reviews completed, both states'' regulatory approvals granted, all state funding appropriated, and $10 million in federal appropriations allocated thus far, we can celebrate the fact that project construction is just around the bend," Dave Hunt, executive director of the channel deepening coalition, said.

The next step for the project is the signing of a "Project Cooperation Agreement" between the federal government and the six port sponsors. Additional federal appropriations then will be required to complete project construction, the coalition said.