Waiting on the river

The Port of Astoria is charging ships heading up the Columbia River a $300 fee to cover maintenance on Pier 1 as an emergency pullout.

Lawyers for the Port of Astoria are defending the agency’s harbor maintenance fee, which has spawned a backlash from regional shippers and ports up the Columbia River.

Last year, the Port Commission enacted a fee of $300 on each oceangoing ship over 250 feet long heading up the Columbia. The revenue is intended to help the Port maintain Pier 1, which is periodically used as an emergency tie-up for vessels with mechanical or other issues.

As of Tuesday, the fee had been assessed on 784 ships, equating to more than $235,000 for the cash-strapped agency. But the Port has held off on collection until a federal lawsuit is resolved.

The Port has received letters from all upriver deep-draft ports in opposition to the fee. The Columbia River Steamship Operators’ Association, representing shipping agents, filed suit several months after the fee became effective in July, claiming it is unconstitutional and an arbitrary transit tax on passing ships.

“It bears no relationship to costs created by or services provided to passing vessels,” David Boyajian, a ship captain and attorney representing the association, wrote in his original complaint. “Indeed, the vessels do not cost the Port a penny, nor do they request or receive any benefits or services from the Port of Astoria — they just get a bill.”

Lawyers for the Port argued in their answer to the lawsuit that the fee “is a reasonable fee, imposed proportionately on large commercial vessels, for the service of maintaining a deep-water emergency berth at Pier 1. The absence of this critical service would jeopardize vessel safety and imperil maritime commerce on the Columbia River, and the Port is entitled to reasonable compensation for providing it.”

The arguments of both sides hinge largely on competing U.S. Supreme Court cases related to harbor fees. The shipping association cited a ruling that shot down a property tax imposed on oil tankers by Valdez, Alaska, because the Constitution bars states from enacting tonnage fees without an act of Congress. The Port cited a case in which the Alabama State Docks Commission was allowed to charge passing ships near Mobile a fee for policing.

Discovery in the case is expected to be complete in June, with a decision later in the summer on whether to hold a trial.

Edward Stratton is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact him at 971-704-1719 or estratton@dailyastorian.com.

Recommended for you

(2) comments

Dirk Rohne

Here is a letter sent to parties in response to explain to Port's perspective:

The Port of Astoria’s $300 harbor fee went into effect on July 1, 2019. This fee applies only to large ocean-going ships with a length of 250 feet or more, over 95% of which are foreign-flagged vessels. This fee is necessary to cover the costs of an important service provided by the Port of Astoria to all ships that enter the Columbia River. This is the availability of Pier 1, which is the only infrastructure at the mouth of the Columbia River capable of providing an emergency berth for distressed vessels suffering serious mechanical issues or an onboard fire. We do not believe that this small harbor fee is in any way detrimental to the competitiveness of Columbia River ports, especially considering that the typical Panamax vessel is incurring daily operating costs of $15,000 or more. When virtually all grain terminals on the Columbia River dramatically increased their service and facilities fees by thousands of dollars per ship some years ago, there was no negative impact on grain exports out of the Columbia River in the following year.

The Port of Astoria, with its historic large and aging infrastructure and has unique challenges that must be dealt with. Its unique location also puts it on the receiving end of sedimentation of the entire Columbia, which creates higher maintenance dredging costs. A citizen advisory group, made up of experienced professionals, has advised the Port to seek to recover costs of maintenance by any means available. In regard to any sincere offer of collaboration that would solve our challenges and be mutually beneficial, we welcome it.

The Port of Astoria appreciates your concerns, but owes it to its constituents to defend the harbor fee in order to cover the annual cost of maintaining Pier 1.

Sincerely,

Dirk Rohne

Commission President

Phil Goldblatt

Another tax, the money comes from the end user of the products being shipped.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.