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.