Several angry boat owners from the East Mooring Basin unloaded Tuesday on the Port of Astoria over the closure of a causeway to their vessels, excoriating the agency over its handling of the crumbling marina.
Port commissioners apologized to tenants and promised to figure out how to reopen the causeway as soon as possible, as did Jim Knight, the Port’s executive director, who defended his reasoning for closing pedestrian access.
Vehicles have been restricted from the aging causeway for several years. The Port decided shortly before Thanksgiving to immediately close pedestrian access as well following a recommendation from state bridge inspectors concerned about severely rotten substructure.
Several of the approximately 20 vessels at the east side marina have since moved to the Port’s West Mooring Basin, while many of those remaining have had to use skiffs to reach their boats.
Alan Brann, owner of Kiwi’s Water Taxi, which ferries people to and from ships in the Columbia River out of the Port’s mooring basins, said he spends between $35,000 and $40,000 per year on fuel, moorage and power. But since being told to relocate after the causeway’s closure, Brann said he stopped buying fuel from the Port, instead going to Wilcox & Flegel Oil Co. downtown.
“My opinion of the Port of Astoria right now is pretty much zip,” he said.
J.D. Moreland, who has three commercial fishing boats at the East Mooring Basin, said he has been there since 2003 and has no other place to go.
“We’re just disgusted with how that has went down there, slowly downhill,” he said. “Our rates have gone up. The service has gotten worse.”
Many boat owners have thrown cold water on the Port’s argument that the causeway is too dangerous to even walk on. They called on the Port to at least allow them a liability waiver to reach their boats.
Knight cast doubt on whether a lawyer would approve liability waivers, but said the Port is dedicated to getting the causeway open as soon as possible. The problems at the causeway and in other areas of the Port’s crumbling infrastructure are decades in the making, and the cash-strapped agency needs help from the public in arguing for more assistance, he added.
Commissioner Bill Hunsinger, a withering critic of Knight, blamed him for not taking responsibility for the Port’s issues over his four-year tenure or providing a plan to fix the causeway.
He called on the Port to have professionals plot a path between the weakest portions of the causeway for boat owners to use. He offered to donate $3,000 to help with repair efforts, later saying he’d need to be paid back.
The Port is still waiting on a report from the state Department of Transportation on what needs to be fixed to reopen the causeway, Knight said. The agency has sought help from local marine contractor Bergerson Construction, which performs much of the local dock work, to look at the structure.
Greg Morrill, co-owner of Bergerson, said the company has looked at the state’s previous report and disagreed with some of the dire warnings.
Frank Spence, the president of the Port Commission, said the agency should hold an emergency meeting once the state recommendations come back so the agency can take immediate action. Port Commissioner Robert Stevens even warmed to the idea of allowing boat owners a liability waiver to access the causeway.
Floyd Holcom, owner of the Pier 39 waterfront complex just east of the marina, and architect Nik Sernande recently approached the Port about leasing and operating the East Mooring Basin under Fishermens Wharf — Astoria. They want to develop more slips, install floating homes, add retail spaces and potentially create a new cruise ship terminal along a breakwater owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Port is hoping the partnership will provide the millions of dollars in private capital to overhaul the causeway and enliven the marina.
Holcom, who has been providing skiffs for tenants at the East Mooring Basin to reach their boats, said he was shocked to learn of the causeway’s closure and hopes to work with the Port to solve the issue.
“Ours is about 650 feet long,” he said. “It goes out to Pier 39, and we have maintenance guys on it all the time, as well as a beer truck that’s about 40,000 pounds.”
About half the audience left the meeting after discussion of the East Mooring Basin ended. On his way out, Dave Densmore, who has been using a skiff to reach his live-aboard boat, offered Port commissioners a ride out if they want to look underneath the causeway.