Budget cuts may cost port $10M

Federal grant to improve rail access could be eliminated

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

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Fallout from the congressional budget showdown may cost the Port of Vancouver $10 million in federal funding for a rail improvement project intended to attract new industrial development.

The port’s funding is not part of the $4 billion in cuts made Wednesday to keep the federal government operating for the next two weeks. But it could be eliminated later, as the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives seeks deeper cuts.

Larry Paulson, the port’s executive director, raised the issue in a letter sent last week to members of the state’s congressional delegation.

“This action would likely result in significant loss of anticipated jobs, which are needed to help the Southwest Washington region to recover from our country’s long recession,” Paulson wrote.

The port was awarded the grant last autumn, but the money hasn’t been officially obligated.

Paulson said that wouldn’t occur until the port finishes its environmental review and forges a formal agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration. He said that should occur this spring, with construction to begin in the fall.

The port is planning to use the $10 million — dispensed through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s competitive TIGER II discretionary grant program — to complete two parts of its $137 million West Vancouver Freight Access Project. One project will build an overpass at Gateway Avenue to separate vehicle and train traffic, allowing better access to the port’s Terminal 5, and supporting the handling of various cargo. The second is aimed at significantly improving rail service to United Grain facilities.

The project at Terminal 5 anticipates new industrial development at the former site of the Alcoa aluminum smelter.

In the meantime, Australia-based BHP Billiton is continuing to pursue building permits through the city of Vancouver and negotiating terms with the port to build an export center for potash at Terminal 5. The 60-acre facility, which would include handling, storage, dock and rail operations, is expected to generate at least 60 jobs by April 2015.

“Any delay is unfortunate,” Paulson said.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., highlighted the port’s dilemma in arguing against deep cuts.

“We need to make smart cuts, not cuts that stall our recovery,” Murray said in a prepared statement. “Eliminating this investment, in a project that’s slated to create local construction jobs and have a major regional economic impact in Southwest Washington, is simply counterproductive.”

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, is aware of the Port of Vancouver’s situation, a spokesman said.

“Jaime is well aware of the Tiger II funding issue, and is having discussions about restoring funding for the access project,” press secretary Casey Bowman wrote in an e-mail.

However, Bowman also indicated that Herrera Beutler is committed to following through with her campaign promise to reduce federal spending.

“Reducing the federal deficit and working for what’s in the best interest of Southwest Washington don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals,” Bowman said in an e-mail.

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551 or erik.robinson@columbian.com.