By ELAINE WILLIAMS of the Tribune; Sunday, October 6, 2013
The Port of Whitman is examining how trains could replace barging if the Snake River were closed to commercial traffic.
The rail system is adequate to meet the needs of port tenants, but that may change if environmentalists succeed in blocking dredging of the lower Snake and Clearwater rivers, said Debbie Snell, properties and development manager for the port.
Dredging has already been delayed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to December 2014 at the earliest. River transportation advocates had hoped it would begin a year earlier.
"If that continues, it could get to the point where shipping is operating at a reduced capacity and then things are silting in," Snell said. "And of course the next step would be, 'Why don't we look at taking out some dams to flush the silt?' That could be a possible scenario."
The Port of Lewiston also is weighing how it might cope if barges could no longer navigate to Idaho from Portland, Ore. The port's study covers other issues, such as truck traffic, and is expected to be finished in December. The two ports are among three with riverfront sites regularly handling cargo behind Lower Granite dam, the eastern most of eight dams along the Snake and Columbia river system.
The third, the Port of Clarkston, faces different circumstances since it lacks rail, said port Manager Wanda Keefer.
It mothballed its crane for handling barge cargo four years ago. The port still has a grain terminal that fills Portland-bound barges, but has not figured out what would happen to that operation without commercial river transportation, Keefer said.
In addition, the Port of Clarkston is a destination for overnight cruise boats that run a circuit along the Snake and Columbia rivers in Oregon and Washington.
"You can't take a cruise boat and put it on the back of (a truck) trailer," Keefer said.
The plans underway for the Port of Lewiston and Port of Whitman both contemplate transportation in the long term.
Snell said the Port of Whitman is looking to complete a schematic and cost estimates for new spurs and storage areas for rail cars in about two years. Such upgrades could be constructed incrementally as needed over a period of years.
It will develop its ideas by talking with tenants and Watco, which has the short line rail operation that runs through the Port of Wilma, just west of Clarkston.
Port of Wilma tenants dependent on barging are Columbia Grain, which ships bulk agricultural commodities, Clearwater Fiber, which moves chips, and TGM Investments, a firm that handles large machinery, including some of the megaloads proposed for transport on U.S. Highway 12, Snell said.
The port also is considering how its biggest tenant, Bennett Lumber, fits into the picture even though its operations are currently mothballed. "We have a lease with Bennett until 2027," Snell said.
While port officials are evaluating their rail options, the work doesn't mean they no longer value water transportation, Snell said.
"It's still the most efficient way to ship bulk materials up and down the river. However, one of the port's primary goals is the support of multi-modal transportation systems."