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Oregon ports eye different rail routes

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Picture Lewis and Clark splitting up at some point between present-day Umatilla and Boardman and racing to the Pacific Ocean, the East Oregonian reports. Two contemporary economic explorers, the general managers of the ports of Umatilla and Morrow, are doing just that. Their goal, however, is developing a better shipping route from the mid-Columbia River to Puget Sound.

Gary Neal of the Port of
Morrow soon plans to begin spending nearly $10 million to build a main line
rail siding and a container rail yard involving nearly 3.5 miles of track. He
plans to pay for 80 percent of the project with a $7.9-million grant from the
Oregon Department of Transportation’s Connect Oregon II program.

Neal’s plan is sending
containers via rail to Washington State’s deep-water ports, where they can be
put on ocean-going ships. He also envisions a route for more containers of
garbage to come to Morrow County.

Kim Puzey of the Port of
Umatilla is looking to the federal government for some help to put together a short-sea
shipping project. It would involve putting containers on barges and sending
them down the Columbia River and up the Washington coast to Puget Sound. He
believes using the "marine highway" will be cheaper and more
environmentally conscious than using the railroad or the highway.

"The cleanest and most
fuel efficient method is water, and that’s what is driving the Port of
Umatilla," Puzey said.

It could cost as much as
$50 million or as little as $31 million, depending upon the approach. If using
the crane to load and unload barges, the port needs to extend its crane to
accommodate the larger ocean-going barges and to extend its bulkhead 400 feet
to accommodate a second barge. That would cost about $20 million. But if that
plan doesn’t float, Puzey said the port could get by with about $31 million,
which would pay for a couple of ramps and a couple of motorized lift trucks
that would drive containers onto and off of the barges.

In either case, $30 million
would be spread over three years providing subsidies to shippers who don’t use
trucks, encouraging them to barge their containers. Puzey, who’s been the
port’s general manager since 1994, envisions offering $8 million in subsidies
the first year, $10 million the second year and $12 million the third year.

To pay for the project, the
port plans to apply for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic
Recovery grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

But why not just put containers
on barges to the Port of Portland as the two ports have been doing?

"The Port of Portland
continues to lose carriers," said Puzey, adding that just two
trans-Pacific container lines call at Portland today, down from a dozen just a
dozen years ago.

Puzey too is trying to
develop improved access to deep-water ports because Umatilla County’s largest
importer, Walmart, and the county’s largest exporter, COLO Logistics, don’t use
the Port of Portland. Walmart trucks imported products to its Hermiston Distribution
Center from the Port of Long Beach, Calif., Puzey said. And COLO, a subsidiary
of James Farrell & Co. of Seattle, isn’t shipping through Portland.

Neal says the Port of
Morrow has the same intent.

"Our goal is to make
our facilities available so our industries and our shippers can get their
products to market," he said, "not just international, but domestic
as well. Rail may be more cost-effective for long-distance shipping."

That’s a new way of
thinking at the Port of Morrow, which traditionally has sent and received
containers to and from the Port of Portland via the Columbia River. More and
more containers, however, are trucked to Puget Sound, which is a two-day round
trip. But that’s where the international shippers are, Neal said.

"In the best of times,
we only have had 50 percent of our export business out of Portland," Neal
said. "There’s always some movement to Puget Sound."

It’s also an ideal
arrangement for Northwest Container and for Union Pacific Railroad, he said.
The trains will haul garbage to Boardman and haul processed hay back to Puget
Sound, but not in the same containers.

Meanwhile, Union Pacific
officials are reviewing the design of the port’s proposed track additions. They
expect to complete their work in September, said Tom Lange, a Union Pacific
spokesman. Neal hopes construction can begin in time to allow the new rail yard
to be in use by next summer.

Even the railroad’s
involvement shows a change of attitude.

"Union Pacific’s never
been interested in the short haul from here to Puget Sound," he said.

But as the Port of Morrow
began receiving more containers of solid waste from Clark County, Wash.,
destined for the Finley Buttes Landfill, Union Pacific’s interest perked up.

Waste Connections, a
Vancouver, Wash., firm, owns Finley Buttes Landfill in Morrow County and
Northwest Container Services Inc. The company ships garbage to Finley Buttes
through the Port of Morrow.

"Northwest Container
has a Puget Sound terminal and will carry both types of containers," Neal
said, referring to those that carry solid waste and those that carry exports to
the Far East. "The company also has a lease to operate the Port of Morrow
container terminal," Neal said.

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