The Port of Astoria charged 117 ships coming up the Columbia River in July a $300 fee for harbor maintenance, but is holding back on collection while awaiting a likely legal challenge.

Earlier this year, the Port Commission voted to charge each oceangoing ship over 250 feet long passing Astoria upriver $300 to pay for the maintenance of Pier 1. The agency argues the pier, where the Coast Guard has periodically sent ships with mechanical problems, serves as an emergency pullout.

Waiting on the river

The Port of Astoria charged 117 ships heading up the Columbia River in July a $300 fee for harbor maintenance.

Will Isom, the Port’s interim executive director, said the agency is trying to expedite a likely lawsuit and hold the money in a protected account in case the Port loses in court.

“While this thing likely heads toward federal court, we’re going to proceed with the billing,” he said. “But how do we protect those funds?”

The Columbia River Steamship Operators’ Association, a group representing oceangoing vessels, has voiced its opposition, arguing that the Port’s fee will set a precedent for others along the river, causing economic calamity. The commission of the Port of Longview, Washington, recently voted to oppose the fee and sent a letter accusing the Port of taking advantage of collaborative investments upriver.

“Ports upriver of Astoria have invested tens of millions of dollars to deepen and maintain the channel and provide infrastructure within the river to attract cargo to our ports,” the letter said. “Now that upriver ports are realizing the benefits of their combined efforts, Astoria is seeking to capitalize on the financial investments of partner ports and impose unnecessary and cumbersome fees on our customers.”

Michael Haglund, a maritime attorney contracted by the Port, has argued the fee is legitimate. He referenced a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Alabama State Docks Commission was allowed to charge passing ships near Mobile a fee for policing.

The Port hopes to have a legal decision on the validity of its harbor maintenance fee within six months, Isom said.

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

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