Deeper River, Stronger Economy
by Editorial Board
The Daily News, November 30, 2008
Given the steady drumbeat of grim economic news, we took particular encouragement from Daily News city editor Andre Stepankowsky's recent report on the status of the Columbia River channel-deepening project. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Matt Rabe told Stepankowsky the project should be finished in February 2010, as scheduled. This is news that brightens the region's economic horizon considerably. The deeper shipping channel, once completed, will boost local economies from Astoria to Portland.
The project has been progressing well for several years now, but Rabe's confirmation that it is on track for completion in 2010 is reassuring. Nothing has come easy for this channel-deepening project in the more than two decades since port officials first gathered in Vancouver to call for the deeper shipping channel. Representatives of this and other port communities along the lower Columbia River have had to battle in court and scratch for federal funding every step of the way to advance the project.
Just five years ago, it seemed that the federal government might pull the plug on the project. The Bush administration adopted a "no new starts" policy for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' projects in 2003, just as the Corps was posed to begin dredging. Fortunately, the administration soon recognized that well over a decade of study and planning and the millions already invested disqualified the project as a "new start," and allowed the Corps to begin dredging the deeper channel in fiscal 2005.
President Bush would become an enthusiastic supporter of the project. In 2006, he called for an appropriation large enough to complete the dredging by the end of fiscal 2009, a year ahead of schedule. Congress balked, which was unfortunate. Time, in fact, is money insofar as port communities along the lower Columbia River are concerned. The extra 3 feet of depth in the shipping channel is needed to accommodate larger, more efficient cargo vessels. For some time now, larger ships have had to take on lighter loads of grain from the Port of Kalama in order to navigate the existing 40-foot-deep portions of the channel. Port of Kalama officials have estimated that the deeper channel will mean an extra $132 million in annual revenue for the port.
The stake all ports in the region have in a deeper shipping channel was made clear in a 2005 marine cargo forecast by the Washington Public Ports Association. Lower Columbia River grain exports are expected to nearly double, from 8.5 million tons to 15.1 million tons, with the deeper channel. It's fair to say that, for this and other port communities along the lower Columbia River, channel deepening is close to an economic necessity. Trade along this portion of river supports an estimated 60,000 family wage jobs. The future of that trade hinges on maintaining a shipping channel deep enough to accommodate the next generation of larger cargo vessels.
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