KALAMA — Local port leaders told a visiting U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., about an upcoming federally backed study they say could help the ports in Southwest Washington compete in a changing and busy economy.
Building better foundations to accommodate the bustling port industry has been a focus both locally and now federally, Cantwell told Port of Kalama and Port of Longview leaders during a roundtable talk Monday afternoon.
Cantwell, along with other local lawmakers in Washington, D.C., helped secure millions in federal funds for projects they hope will allow the area’s ports meet rising demands for product.
“We’ve tried to put dollars into projects that will help communities help themselves,” Cantwell said. “We have to be ready to compete in this environment.”
One project is a turning basin study that received $1.1 million in federal funding to assist both the Longview and Kalama ports in finding a spot on the river where they can deepen the channel so bigger ships can turn around and get to their destination more efficiently.
Along the Lower Columbia marine highway, there are few spots between Portland and Seattle where these large ships — carrying a variety of products from grain to steel — can turn around if needed.
This can often create a traffic jam along the highway that may contribute to shipping delays, said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Valerie Ringold, Portland District chief of planning and economics.
Ports of Kalama and Longview have recently broken their own financial records when it comes to export revenue, and the Columbia River stands as an essential part of interstate and international trade, said Eric Yakovich, Port of Kalama’s director of economic development.
“And each of these ports in the area produces a similar economic output,” Yakovich said.
The Lower Columbia ports mostly serve as export ports with direct access to the Pacific Ocean, said Kate Mickelson, executive director at Columbia River Steamship Operators’ Association.
The Kalama port is expecting to end the year with 1,400 vessels that have traveled through the area, she said.
That comes out to billions of dollars annually in economic output, Yakovich said.
The port has already shipped about 1,600 metric tons of product — about six times the land area of Olympia, Mickelson said.
The study is slated to begin soon and will likely finish after a year. After that, the ports can decide how they want to get funding and then begin construction of the potential new turning basins.
Cantwell asked local port leaders, who have an agreement with the Southwest Washington Regional Airport, about the need for projects at the rural airway.
Port of Longview Board President Allan Erickson said the airport remains important to the surrounding communities, but the ports have to balance meeting needs for rail and port capacity before they can focus on investing significantly into the airport.
One project that has been on hold involves moving underground fuel tanks above ground, though airport officials have said cost inflation and supply chain issues have not made it easy.
“It comes down to dollars,” Erickson said.
Cantwell said she believed the airport plays a role in how well the ports do and the overall economy, adding she would look into making those investments in the future.
“That issue needs to be addressed,” Cantwell said.