Funds for River Deepening Come Up Shortby Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, November 23, 2004
Supporters of a plan to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel envisioned a gusher of federal dollars flowing to the $150.5 million project. That gusher now looks more like a drip-drip-drip.
Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have said they needed $15 million to award contracts to begin deepening the river for bigger modern ships. Congress, however, included only $9 million in a spending bill to be sent to President Bush an amount that splits the difference between $15 million approved by the Senate and $3 million approved by the House of Representatives.
In a visit to the Port of Portland on Aug. 13, Bush himself endorsed the higher figure.
"Everything we've been planning for rested on $15 million," said Matt Rabe, a corps spokesman in Portland. "We're going to have to sit down in the coming days and look at our options."
The project already includes $55.4 million contributed by Washington and Oregon, along with about $10 million Congress previously allocated for environmental restoration. The corps planned on two years of constant dredging to deepen the minimum depth of the 600-foot-wide, 103-mile-long shipping channel from 40 to 43 feet.
Project supporters argue that dredging is necessary to hold onto a shipping industry that provides thousands of jobs and carries billions of dollars worth of imports and exports 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.
Rabe said corps officials will meet with representatives of the sponsoring ports, including Vancouver and Portland, to decide what to do next.
Larry Paulson, director of the Port of Vancouver, did not rule out the possibility of Columbia River ports contributing the balance of the money needed by the corps to get the project started next spring. He said he's confident Congress will kick in more money next year, in light of Bush's support.
"I think it breaks the log jam," Paulson said. "The president has made a real commitment to include this in his budget."
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the president's support came too late for this year.
"It's unfortunate this bill's commitment falls short of the funding goal supported by so many people throughout the region," Murray said in a prepared statement. "But when the House provides only one-fifth of the needed funding and the president is very late in supporting the project, it's not a surprising result. I will continue to fight for funding for channel deepening, and I hope the president will urge his party's leaders in the House to get on board for the benefit of the entire region."
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