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Channel Dredging Back on Schedule

by Mark Engler, Freelance Writer
Capital Press, May 6, 2005

New bids meet requirements for work to begin on Columbia River

New bids for the first phase of deepening the Columbia River channel are closer to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates, putting the project on track for a timely start-up, corps officials said.

Three companies presented their cost estimates to get the project under way as early as this month. The lowest bid was from Illinois-based Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, which came in at about $10.6 million, well within the 25 percent overshot range allowed by the corps. The corps estimate for the work was $9 million.

The corps could officially award the bid to Great Lakes any day now, with the hope being that deepening the channel from 40 to 43 feet could start by June 1, said corps spokesman Matt Rabe.

Ken O'Hollaren, executive director of the Port of Longview, Wash., said news of acceptable bids represents a "significant milestone" in the nearly two-decade push to get the project under way.

"This is the moment we've been waiting for," said O'Hollaren.

Deepening the shipping channel means the Port of Longview, which is 66 miles from the mouth of the Columbia and employs about 60 full-time workers, and other river ports will be more competitive, said O'Hollaren.

"It will allow ports to load vessels more efficiently and for the vessels themselves to operate more efficiently. When they are more efficient and more competitive, we are as well," he said.

The project "means keeping the river competitive" on an international scale, said O'Hollaren. "There are great regional economic benefits associated with channel deepening."

The Port of Longview primarily handles bulk dry cargo, including agriculture products like soybean meal and fertilizers, which "are the sorts of products that would tend to take full access of a deeper channel," he said.

Opponents of the project -- like Portland-based Northwest Environmental Advocates, which is suing to stop the deepening effort and potentially even halt maintenance dredging in the channel -- have argued that the corps' anticipated regional economic payoffs are overblown. They also argue the project's dredged-materials disposal costs are underestimated and that fish and wildlife will be harmed.

Last month the first round of bids for some of the initial dredge work came back significantly higher than corps officials had anticipated. Officials said the bids were higher because the deepening work and maintenance dredging were bundled into a single bid package. That allowed only a few larger companies to bid.

Rabe said this week that "it's still too early to tell" if the total price for the project will stay within the $150 million range the corps projects.

"The bids that we received this time around were more in line with our estimates. It's just a matter of time as we award more contracts for the work before we get a clearer idea as to what the ultimate cost will be," said Rabe.

Pacific Northwest Waterways Association executive director Glenn Vanselow said the latest news is good for international trade advocates because "every delay in the project increases costs and also delays benefits that the region will receive."

Vanselow noted that the earlier hangup with the bids provided a clear illustration that there's a need to ease federal restrictions limiting the number of days each year publicly owned dredging equipment can be used. PNWA has been lobbying for some time to eliminate the "artificial restrictions" on the corps' two Northwest hopper dredges that perform regular maintenance dredging in the river and along the coast.

The dredging ships Essayons and Yaquina are limited by federal law to working on dredge projects less than 200 days a year. Twice in the last four years the dredges have hit their maximum number of days before the fiscal year was over or the Columbia's maintenance dredge work was complete, said Vanselow.

Mark Engler, Freelance Writer
Channel Dredging Back on Schedule
Capital Press, May 6, 2005

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