Columbia River to get dredging funds - Murray helps funding of $5 million for deepening shipping channel

Friday, July 18, 2003

By ERIK ROBINSON, Columbian staff writer

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray shoehorned $5 million for deepening the Columbia River shipping channel into a Senate subcommittee's budget proposal this week, enough to kindle the hopes of dredging supporters.

Even if the funding makes it through the House of Representatives and earns President Bush's signature, it's still well short of the estimated $133.6 million cost of the two-year project. A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged the possibility that piecemeal funding may string out the project over several years.

"We definitely would take longer if funding was constrained," corps spokesman Matt Rabe said. "It's a funding reality."

Northwest lawmakers had hoped to put $20 million for channel-deepening in the federal budget that begins in October. Considering the shaky economy and federal budget realities, project supporters said they're pleased with the $5 million secured by Murray, D-Wash. Murray negotiated to include the money in the Senate energy and water appropriations bill.

"This demonstrates the momentum for the project and validation that improving the channel will help strengthen our economy," Port of Portland executive director Bill Wyatt said in a prepared statement.

Dave Hunt, director of the Columbia River Channel Coalition, a group of dredging supporters, acknowledged that Congress may be slow to quickly pay for the 65 percent federal share of the project, especially if the economy continues to falter. Hunt noted that the project becomes more expensive the longer it drags out.

"Frankly, if the economy were not in such trouble and it wasn't actually cheaper to do it in a shorter time frame, then I think we'd be very comfortable with a longer time line," Hunt said.

Hunt and congressional sources said the project may face better prospects for funding next year, when the corps makes the proposal official by issuing a formal record of decision.

Without the record of decision, and with plenty of other projects in need of money, President Bush has yet to propose any money for Columbia River dredging.

"If we're not in the president's budget (next year), that's an additional level of challenge," Hunt said.

The federal government is supposed to pay about 65 percent of the project's cost, and state lawmakers in Washington and Oregon have already agreed to split the remainder of the cost as much as $27.7 million from each state. The project would deepen the Columbia's 600-foot-wide shipping channel from 40 to 43 feet between Vancouver and the mouth of the river.

Project supporters argue that dredging is necessary to hold onto a shipping industry that provides thousands of jobs and carries $13 billion worth of goods annually.

But 43 feet is still not deep enough to fully load the big container ships currently plying the world's seas, and critics worry about damaging the estuary in return for uncertain or marginal economic benefits.

Earlier this year, the Corps of Engineers concluded the nation would reap $1.71 in transportation savings for every tax dollar spent on the project. Local officials tout the benefits of a deeper channel to the grain ships that predominantly call at the Port of Vancouver, but the corps calculates that almost two-thirds of the project's benefits will accrue to the higher-value merchandise hauled aboard giant container ships calling at the Port of Portland.

Washington and Oregon environmental regulators last month ruled the proposal is consistent with water-quality and coastal zone management laws.


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