Centennial tours tout Vancouver port's past, present, future

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Port of Vancouver tours

The Port of Vancouver’s centennial public tours are scheduled through October. Make a reservation by calling 360-693-3611 or emailing info@portvanusa.com. For more information about the port’s history: http://www.portva.... Tour dates and times:

March 15: Noon

April 19: Noon

May 17: 5:30 p.m.

June 23: 11 a.m. family tour

July 21: 11 a.m. family tour

Sept. 20: 5:30 p.m.

Oct. 18: Noon

The school bus, filled with 42 people, trundled along large swaths of pavement Thursday, moving through the Port of Vancouver’s past and present, and heading through corridors that point to its future.

“There are the Blues Brothers,” said Andrew Ness, community relations specialist for the port, as he pointed from inside the bus to two port assets: Liebherr LHM 500S heavy-lift mobile cranes, their blue necks stretched high.

Ness spoke to his guests over an intercom system as he led the port’s first public tour in honor of its 100th birthday, which is this year.

The series of tours each lasting for roughly two hours and featuring lunch, trivia, a Power Point presentation and a bus tour of the port’s marine and industrial facilities are scheduled through October.

The tours are intended to give the public a solid glimpse into the port’s history, operations and plans.

It’s a lot to take in, but that’s to be expected when you’re learning about a port that’s been doing business since 1912.

In fact, 812 citizens took part in the 1912 election that established the port 630 voted in favor, while 182 said no.

Suffice it to say, much has changed since then.

Today, the population of the port district is more than 300,000.

In recent years, the Blues Brothers cranes have arrived, ready to grab and move tough-to-handle cargo. And the port has invested millions in remodeling its docks and in installing miles of train tracks.

In its early years, the port’s exports included lumber, pulp and paper, and pickles, while its imports included sulfur, sugar, salt and canned pineapples from Hawaii.

These days its exports include wheat, scrap steel and bulk minerals, while its imports range from wind turbines and Subaru automobiles to liquid bulk products.

It used to be that you could visit the port on your lunch break, taking in the mosaic of cranes, ships and dock workers handling cargo.

Not anymore.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States led to a ratcheting up of security at the port under the supervision of federal homeland security officials.

Now you need a TWIC, or Transportation Workers Identification Credential. “Everybody who accesses the port needs one,” Ness said as the bus rolled on.

At one point Thursday, the bus headed along Gateway Avenue, where a part of the port’s future is planned. The port has hired a contractor for an $11.28 million project that will separate train and vehicle traffic at Gateway Avenue by building an overpass.

It’s expected to be completed by May 2013.

Before the bus tour, the port’s executive director, Larry Paulson,

spoke to the 42 attendees, covering everything from key historical points to the port’s economic development and environmental achievements, as people munched on wraps, sandwiches and cupcakes.

Paulson highlighted the port’s $150 million West Vancouver Freight Access project, a massive expansion of rail tracks that’s the largest capital project in the port’s history.

“We pay for it as we go along,” Paulson said.

About 70 percent of the port’s cargo is now moved by rail. Over the next several years, the number of rail cars traveling through the port is expected to triple, with 85 percent of the port’s cargo transported by rail.

One person on Thursday’s tour asked whether the port has its sights set on exporting coal. No, said Paulson, although the port has been approached by coal exporters. Instead, the port is focused on bringing Australian mining giant BHP Billiton to Vancouver to export potash, a fertilizer used in crops.

Clark County resident Dennis Johnson, who took the tour, said curiosity brought him to the port Thursday. “I like the historical aspects,” he said.

And he enjoyed the fact that Paulson, the port’s chief since 1999, engaged the public instead of sending a lieutenant.

“That,” Johnson said, “was impressive.”

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ;http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.