Crossroads at the port

Eminent domain is an option if IDD levy fails

On Aug. 21, voters in the 111-square-mile Port of Vancouver tax district will have the final say in whether the port can invoke an Industrial Development District levy to raise $78 million for port development.

If it passes, more than $48 million of the money will go toward purchasing the 218 acres of now dormant land owned by Alcoa Inc. and Evergreen Aluminum, west of the port along the Columbia River. The rest will go into infrastructure improvements, roads and, most importantly, rail, said Port Executive Director Larry Paulson.

The temporary levy would add up to 45 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value for six years. For the average homeowner in the district, taxes on a $250,000 home would increase about $112.50 a year, from 2008 through 2013.

Failure of the levy is a real possibility, and the port has been looking at its options.

"There aren’t many options," said communication manager Nelson Holmberg. "We really need the rail project to go through there – it’s one of the key pieces of what we’re doing down here right now. One way or another, rail will go through there."

The rail link is tied to a number of other redevelopment projects, including Columbia Gateway – 500 acres west of the port and Alcoa-Evergreen property – the downtown waterfront redevelopment and the Department of Transportation’s Vancouver Rail Bypass project.

The price tag for the entire rail project is set at $70 million – as a minimum, Paulson said.

The port wants the entire Alcoa-Evergreen property to lease to marine and industrial businesses – bringing an estimated 6,000 family-wage jobs to Vancouver, he said.

But if the levy fails, Holmberg said the port can acquire enough land for the rail project through eminent domain. The port would have to pay fair market value for any land it attains via eminent domain.

"The rail will go through," he said.

The IDD is the only option for the port to raise enough money for the property purchase and infrastructure improvements, Paulson said.

"There isn’t any other way," he said. "We have certain limitations as public agencies for how we can borrow and raise money."

If the IDD doesn’t pass, "it would call into question what we can develop and, more importantly, whether we can develop," Paulson said.

Rail will make or break the port in the long term, he said.

As it stands, there is only one rail access into the port. All trackage is blocked every time a train is brought into the port, Paulson said.

With rail improvement, there will be minimal track disruption on the east-west line because unit trains will be able to be pulled in and out of the port. Additionally, there will no longer be disruption of the north-south line because it will go under the bridge.

Studies conducted by the port and, separately, by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, indicate a 40 percent improvement in congestion reduction by 2025 if rail improvements are made throughout the port, Paulson said.

Ideally, there needs to be the ability to move a full unit train into the port. Now, they must be brought into the port in pieces, costing time and disrupting the main line of traffic, he said.

The port is 70 percent rail dependent now. By 2025, it will likely be 80 percent rail dependent.

"Rail service gets progressively more difficult as time goes on unless you do something to provide better access," he said. "Without rail improvements, we can’t develop the port and we will slowly strangle."

The port’s 600 acres are 100 percent leased now.

Voters will weigh in on whether they’ll accept the tax hike for the project on the August primary ballot. More than 11,500 signatures were collected on the petition to send the issue to the ballot. Signatures from 9,126 registered voters were needed, according to the Clark County Elections Department.

The Clark County Auditor’s Office halted verification of the collected signatures after 11,321 were canvassed – 9,659 were verified as valid signatures of voters residing in the port district.

In late May, port commissioners officially sent the special tax increase to the ballot.

If the levy passes, Alcoa and Evergreen will be responsible for cleanup of the 218 acres. The land has not been in full use for a decade, and the port may need to update utilities, roads and infrastructure there. Paulson said the properties, though oddly shaped, are remarkably interconnected through easements and utilities.

Negotiations for the land have been challenging but cooperative, he said.

"The port is at a crossroads," Paulson said. "What we can do for marine and industrial development and business opportunity is in jeopardy."