Port of Astoria
Reality prevails over wishful thinking. This is the lesson from decades of on-again, off-again plans for the former naval base at Tongue Point.
Tongue Point’s unsuitability as a maritime transportation hub really comes down to one thing: The cost of moving goods by water versus by rail or truck. By allowing freight to be efficiently moved between ports far inland and the ocean, the Columbia River navigation system makes Astoria nearly irrelevant from the standpoint of direct participation in marine shipping.
The Port of Astoria Commission voted 4-1 last week to hand north Tongue Point back to the company that owns it, so that it can in turn be sold to Delaware-based tug- and barge-builder Hyak Maritime.
Unless Astoria evolves into a major metropolis in some distant future, this vote effectively ends any official aspiration to compete for bulk and container cargo — even though there is certain to be ongoing second-guessing by understandably disappointed longshoremen and some others.
It’s worth briefly reexamining the facts. Most pivotal is that the Columbia is virtually an industrial canal between the Pacific Ocean and the Pacific Northwest’s industrial heartland along the I-5 corridor. Deepening the channel — hard fought a dozen years ago — was only the latest in many regional political decisions that institutionalized the Lower Columbia’s canal-like features. Even though the channel is little more than a stone’s throw from Astoria’s shoreline, when it comes to cargo handling we are like a market town located 10 miles off a new interstate.
The huge investment in the Columbia’s channel was locally irritating, but it wasn’t irrational. Especially after factoring in the large cost of drastically upgrading the rail corridor and highways between here and Portland, there is a stark advantage for waterborne shipping. On the simple level of average energy costs, a gallon of fuel can move a ton of cargo 514 miles by ship, 202 miles by train and 59 miles by truck. It’s sensible to carry cargo as far as practicable by water.
Although we are victims of geography and economics as far as becoming a major cargo hub, there’s no reason to feel victimized. We can greatly benefit from supporting Columbia River transportation. By picking our goals more strategically, we can reasonably aspire for Tongue Point as a whole to become an increasingly important source of new jobs. Clatsop Community College’s expanding maritime-science program, the Tongue Point Job Corps Center, existing business WCT Marine, and ongoing efforts to restore the Tourist No. 2 ferry and the Salvage King all point to Tongue Point’s overall potential as collaborative educational and business campus.
The Port of Astoria faces a daunting challenge in the form of more assets than it can afford to repair. Major grant provider Business Oregon is right to push for carefully honed planning for a sensible and sustainable future for the Port.
Shedding its Tongue Point liability is a good first step, among several that may be required. The wishful thinking of past decades will require careful pruning. Thankfully, we appear to have intersected with a time when regional growth is driving private industry’s interest in locating here.
It is becoming possible to discern a “right-sized” port that is a central contributor to Astoria’s well-being by letting private industry do what it does best: assessing risks and rewards to determine an appropriate level of investment. The Port commission should play the role of midwife in this process, while looking out after the public’s interest in enhancing a beautiful, active waterfront.