The Reagan Administration's proposal to make ports start paying the full cost of maintaining and improving harbors and waterways has raised Western ire. although the issue is a national one, it is most acutely felt here in the Pacific Northwest and especially along the the Columbia and Snake Rivers -- a transportation system that is still developing.
Newer and more shallow ports and river systems require more upkeep than many of their Easter Coast cousins.
The administration's proposal would have the users of navigational locks pay a fee based on the full cost of constructing these facilities as well as the full cost of dredging rivers and harbors.
Not only are port interests affected but so too are farmers, who say their competitiveness in world grain markets is often affected by costs of only a few cents a bushel.
Most of these interests were represented at a recent all-day field hearing of the Water Resources Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Public Works, chaired by Sen. James Abdnor (R) of South Dakota.
Officials of the Port of Portland, the largest port on the Columbia, testified that applying a full-recovery user fee on an individual port basis could divert cargoes from Portland to deeper-water or more-mature ports that require less upkeep.
Port analysts predict that passage of the legislation could result in an immediate loss of 4 to 5 million tons of oceangoing cargo to other ports, representing 15 percent of the total volume of traffic on the river.
The Columbia River ports are also seeking major capital improvements, such as dredging the mouth of the river to 60 feet and enlarging the navigation locks at Bonneville Dam, which will cost millions of dollars and would fall entirely on the local ports under the administration proposal.
although it is much less severely affected by the administration proposal, the Port of Seattle opposes portions of the user fee proposal.
Port Executive Director Richard Ford testified that the administration would do well to continue to pay for routine dredging and only seek recovery costs from new projects.
"We're concerned in Seattle, but its impact is devastating on the state of Washington," Mr. Ford said. "The operations and maintenance portion strikes at survival."
Most Northwest ports (except Seatle) are rallying behind a compromise bill introduced by Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R) of Oregon. This bill would establish a uniform fee assessed on commerce in all the nation's ports, which would go into a national waterways trust fund to pay for waterway maintenance and improvements.
Senate Hatfield also avocates splitting the costs of new facilities and new deepwater dredging 50-50 between the federal government and localities.
Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington said Congress is faced with water improvements that "vastly exceed what Congress can afford." He notes also that many East Coast ports are willing to pick up a large portion of the costs.
HE said the solution probably lies in a compromise that would put some of the costs on localities without destroying the competitiveness of individual ports.