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Restoring the Lower Snake River

col.gorgeFebruary 28, 2016

By Wendy Culverhill

A big, red Pasco landmark could soon become a victim of falling demand for container barging on the Columbia River.

The Port of Pasco is poised to sell a crane that it hasn’t used in five years, acknowledging its container barge business is all but dead and unlikely to return. Randy Hayden, the port’s executive director, reluctantly recommended Thursday that the port sell its Manitowoc 4100. The port commission discussed the state of marine affairs but made no decisions.

The crane has stood sentry at the marine terminal in Big Pasco Industrial Center, north of the cable bridge, since 2000. The port bought it from a Houston broker for $800,000, then invested another $500,000 to replace critical parts and restore its original red color.

It was previously painted purple and stationed in Pakistan by its original owner, American President Lines.

Fifteen years ago, the investment made perfect sense. The then-busy marine terminal needed a modern crane to replace a failing 1942 model it bought decades earlier from the Port of Portland for $1.

Operators called the old crane BOB for Big Orange B****, and complained it was underpowered, unstable in wind and unheated. They used space heaters in the cab to keep windows from freezing in the winter.

The Manitowoc is a tread-mounted, 45-ton crane. In its heyday, it was used to load containers filled with hay, hides, popcorn and other agriculture products onto barges headed to Portland for transfer onto Asia-bound ships.

That business is gone and unlikely to return.

$1.3 million Cost to install, upgrade Manitowoc crane
Container shipping has almost disappeared at the Port of Portland.

Pasco’s nearest competitor, the Port of Morrow, has superior rail connections to the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma thanks to its vendor, Northwest Container Service.

Pasco has tried to negotiate a shuttle deal with its railroad, BNSF, but without success. With no connection to Seattle and Tacoma, Pasco depends on connections in Portland.

But container volumes evaporated in 2015 when Hanjin Shipping Co. of South Korea stopped calling on Portland. Between 2012 and 2015, Portland container processing fell 85 percent, according to figures released in January.

Container volumes did not return after the International Longshore Workers Union and port managers resolved the West Coast slowdown last spring. Portland container processing dropped to just a few 100 units per month.

Randy Hayden, Pasco’s executive director, said the outlook for container shipping on the Columbia River is poor. The bar crossing at the mouth of the Columbia is among the most difficult in the world and the Columbia itself won’t accommodate the massive new vessels coming online.

“It’s a changing dynamic that doesn’t bode well for Portland,” Hayden said.
It’s a changing dynamic that doesn’t bode well for Portland.

Hayden reluctantly recommended the port sell the idled crane. It could fetch from $500,000 to $700,000 in the used equipment market. The move will save the port about $22,000 in annual maintenance costs and $700 in annual certification costs.

The Manitowoc is so rarely used that port officials confess they don’t renew the certification every year. The port does not employ an operator.

Representatives from Zen-Noh Hay encouraged the port to keep the crane to keep Pasco in the container handling business, but offered no clear evidence that container demand will revive.

Commissioners seemed resigned to selling the crane.

“We could get $500,000 out of it. There’s things we could do,” said Commissioner Ron Reimann.

The marine terminal’s 800-foot dock has a capacity of 770 pounds per square foot and offers on-dock rail service courtesy BNSF. The port still owns a Hyster 40-ton stacker to aid with loading barges.

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