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Deep Channel on Columbia Faces Delay

by Jim Barnett & Dylan Rivera
The Oregonian, September 18, 2003

A plan to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel has been labeled a "new start" by the Bush administration, putting the project at the back of the line for federal funding and raising the likelihood that completion could be delayed by years.

The project's scheduled 2006 completion date has been in doubt since the Bush White House announced its "no new starts" policy to reduce the backlog of civil works projects that have been authorized but not completed.

The "new start" label means that President Bush will not make room for the project in his budget proposals, forcing members of Congress from the region to compete year after year for scarce construction dollars.

"For the project to move quickly, it needs the president's support," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "It makes it a whole lot harder to get the funding when the president asks for nothing in his budget."

The $148.4 million project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would deepen the river by 3 feet, to 43 feet, allowing large cargo ships to load more exports of wheat, hay and frozen vegetables. The Port of Portland and five other sponsoring ports say deeper water is crucial to their competitiveness.

Critics say dredging would destroy habitat for endangered salmon in the sensitive river estuary and further erode Oregon and Washington beaches. Environmental groups also have challenged the project's compliance with state and federal water-quality standards.

The project has received some federal money for construction in previous years. But it is considered "new" because no dredging contracts have been awarded by the Corps of Engineers, a White House official said.

"Our general policy is to deal with the backlog we've got," said Marcus Peacock, an associate director of the Office of Management and Budget. "The more 'new starts' you put into the backlog, the more everything else gets stretched out. You never get done, and everybody suffers."

Matt Rabe, a spokesman at the corps' regional headquarters in Portland, confirmed this week that the Columbia River project had been designated a "new start."

Port officials had hoped to win a total of $92.5 million during three years, beginning with the 2004 energy and water spending bill, which passed the Senate on Tuesday. The Port asked for an installment of $20 million, but Murray and other senators from the region could persuade colleagues to carve out only $5 million.

"It definitely will slow construction of the project down if it comes in small chunks," Rabe said.

Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Port of Portland, said he hoped larger amounts would come in future years. Even if the project is blocked from the president's budget, Wyatt said, it enjoys strong support from the region's congressional delegation.

Wyatt said he is confident the delegation could secure "substantial" amounts from Congress once the project receives its "record of decision," a formal endorsement by national corps officials, expected within weeks.

"Every day this project, in my opinion, comes closer to being a reality because we have cleared virtually all of the hurdles that have been placed in its way," he said. "I am quite confident that we will complete the project. Mainly getting started is the most important part of this."

Chances of progress Still, the record is grim for corps construction projects left out of the annual White House budget proposal. A look at this year's Senate energy and water bill shows why.

The bill allocates money to 262 corps construction projects for a potential total of $1.8 billion. But 85 of those projects, including the Columbia, were added by senators and received only $194.8 million of the total.

What's more, projects added by senators typically receive smaller allocations each year than those in the president's budget.

The administration policy changes the dynamics of funding for the project, said Walt Evans, a Portland attorney and former congressional aide to former Sen. Mark O. Hatfield.

Evans, whose clients include the Port of Vancouver, said being excluded from the president's budget is a significant setback. The difference in funding can be overcome only with intense lobbying from the delegation's most senior members, he said.

"It's not night and day, but it's twilight and daybreak," Evans said.

Bush is only the most recent of many presidents who have attempted to cut the corps' budget, Evans said.

Despite past objections, members of Congress often have won approval of their pet projects, he added. The Columbia River dredging could coast to approval, for example, if it is bundled in the future with similar projects carried by Capitol Hill's power brokers, he said.

Officials unaware of status The corps determined sometime during 2002 that the Columbia project would be considered a "new start" by the White House, Rabe said. Corps officials at that time informed project sponsors orally rather than in writing, Rabe said.

But Wyatt said he was not aware of the project's status until this week. And on Capitol Hill, several members of Congress said they had been operating under the assumption that the project would not be subject to the "no new starts" policy.

"My impression is that it would not," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., whose district includes the bulk of the Port's maritime facilities. "Nobody has thrown that at me."

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., objected to the new-start label for the Columbia project because it already has received some money. He said he would take the case for channel deepening directly to the White House if necessary.

"The notion that this is a 'new start' is really far-fetched stuff," Wyden said. "There is a lot of history here. If the White House is going to argue this is a new start, you can be certain I'll be pointing to a lot of evidence making clear that I see it differently."

Jim Barnett & Dylan Rivera
Deep Channel on Columbia Faces Delay
The Oregonian, September 18, 2003

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