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New Bids Expected on Columbia River Channel Deepening

by Mark Engler, Freelance Writer
Capital Press, April 29, 2005

The effort to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel to accommodate bigger, modern ocean-going freight vessels hit another potential snag this month, but proponents of the project hope the latest rough patch will prove more of a bump than an obstacle.

Bids received this month by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from private companies to perform some of the river-bottom "construction" work between Astoria and Portland came back significantly higher than corps officials had anticipated or for which the agency had budgeted.

An Illinois-based company and another from Seattle offered bids of roughly $31 million and $40 million, respectively, to dredge 25 miles of river. The corps had estimated the cost at about $18 million.

The two bids were "significantly more than what we felt the job warranted," said corps spokesman Matt Rabe.

"Obviously, we didn't budget for such high bids, and we don't have the funding to proceed under that scenario," he said.

So corps officials made some changes to their work request, for example shortening from 25 miles of river they are asking be dredged this summer to 15 miles. In addition corps officials took out some channel work in the Portland-Vancouver area that had been part of the bid package, as well as some other "optional items" that were included, said Rabe.

The new bids for the revised project are expected to be unsealed by the corps on April 29. The anticipated start-date for dredging is June 1, said Rabe.

While only two companies offered bids on the project earlier this month, Rabe said corps officials "are hoping with the scaled-down project that we will be able to entice additional bidders to come to the table."

The corps has estimated that nearly 15 million cubic yards of river-bottom silt, sand, rubble and sludge will have to be removed to deepen the shipping channel between Portland and Astoria from its current minimum depth of 40 feet to 43 feet.

Of the total $150 million the project is expected to ultimately cost, Congress approved $9 million in funding last year, and the Bush administration is proposing that federal lawmakers earmark $15 million toward the effort for the 2007 fiscal year.

Oregon and Washington are also providing funding for the project.

A significant factor in the price private companies will charge to work on the deepening project is the cost of bringing their dredging equipment to the Columbia River.

"The government is willing to pay companies to bring their equipment to the job location, as well as return it to its next job," said Rabe. "So mobilization and demobilization are a factor in the total price. The further that a company needs to bring its equipment, the more money that will be asked of the project."

The corps and the Port of Portland own equipment that could perform the deepening work, but federal law stipulates that the corps "provide opportunity to private industry to work on these types of projects," Rabe said.

"If we had some more dredging companies in the Northwest, this whole thing might be a little more predictable," said Dave Hunt, a member of the Oregon House of Representatives and executive director of the Columbia River Channel Deepening Coalition. "But most of the dredging companies are coming from the East Coast."

Hunt said mobilization costs alone were nearly $6 million in the lowest of the two bids offered earlier this month.

Despite the latest hang-up with the bidding, Hunt says he's "pretty optimistic at this point" that the project will be under way by the summer.

One potential legal hurdle to the project remains, however.

The group Northwest Environmental Advocates is seeking to sink the project with a federal lawsuit.

But Hunt, a Democrat from Clackamas County, says he's also confident the judge hearing the case will reject the arguments the group is making as having been "debunked or already addressed by changes in the projects."

State and federal environmental agencies have given the project a "green light," and "if anything they have a bias against projects moving forward" until they receive credible assurances that fish and wildlife habitats won't be unreasonably harmed, said Hunt

Last fall the corps began overseeing some of the ecosystem restoration and mitigation work that is required to move the project forward.

Mark Engler, Freelance Writer
New Bids Expected on Columbia River Channel Deepening
Capital Press, April 29, 2005

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