Ship passes Port of Astoria

A cargo ship passes under the Astoria Bridge in December.

In the face of legal warnings from the shipping industry, the Port of Astoria is moving toward charging a fee on passing ships to help pay for maintenance at Pier 1.

The Port, strapped for cash, has been looking for ways to raise more money to repair its aging infrastructure. Commissioners last year broached the idea of charging anchorage fees, although maritime attorney Michael Haglund said the Port would need to provide necessary services.

Port staff last month opened the possibility of charging landing fees on seafood processors and fees for passing ships, contracting Haglund to explore the possibilities. Haglund reported back that the Port has broad authority to charge fees in its jurisdiction, which stretches to the Washington state side of the Columbia River.

The Port has talked about limiting fees to passing vessels 250 feet or longer, capturing oceangoing ships and leaving out fishing, sailing and other smaller boats.

The possibility of new fees has brought out representatives from the shipping industry in opposition.

Kate Mickelson, executive director of the Columbia River Steamship Operators’ Association, which represents oceangoing vessels, has cautioned the Port to keep the river’s ports competitive. She has cited a U.S. Supreme Court 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.

At a Port Commission meeting on Tuesday, Mickelson brought along Dave Boyajian, a ship captain and attorney with Portland firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. The Supreme Court ruling was broad in its restrictions against ports charging visiting or passing ships, or every town along the river would be doing so, he said.

“Throwing good time and good money after bad has never been a good way to go after and try to increase revenues,” Boyajian said. “Certainly the Port needs to increase revenues, but this particular avenue, the door is closed on it.”

Haglund disputed Boyajian’s argument. He said the Port is looking at a harbor fee, rather than a tax like in Valdez, to support the maintenance of Pier 1, the only structure large enough at the mouth of the Columbia where ships can tie up in case of emergency.

Pier 1 periodically plays host to vessels ordered to make repairs by the Coast Guard. Haglund referenced the most recent example, the 600-foot, Liberian-flagged bulk carrier Leon Oetker, which was ordered into the Port late last month because of steering and radar issues. Pier 1 was the only place large enough for the ship to tie up, get repaired and avoid a potential accident in the river, Haglund said.

“As long as (the fee) applies to everybody, and everybody is benefitting from a pier that is there for emergencies whenever one of these big ships needs it, it’s legitimate,” he said.

Vessels transiting the Columbia receive invoices for services from the Merchants Exchange in Portland, said Jim Knight, the Port’s executive director.

“They would send the bills to the ships’ agents, and once a month the Port would receive a statement of how many vessels were charged and how much money was collected,” he said.

Port staff will analyze how much dredging and maintenance on and around Pier 1 costs before coming up with a proposed fee.

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

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