CSG Transportation Policy Academy Part 1: Port of Portland Tour

The CSG Transportation Policy Academy got underway July 18th with a tour of the Port of Portland, a diversified facility that is critical to the state’s economy. Attendees heard from the port’s Community Affairs Tour and Outreach Manager Brooke Berglund and State Government Relations Manager Annette Price about the port’s imprint and about how it has benefitted from a state grant and loan program called Connect Oregon that has helped fund key upgrades to aviation, marine and rail infrastructure.

Berglund told attendees the economic impact of port-related activity can be measured in 26,598 jobs, $1.7 billion in income and $4.6 billion in business revenue. The Port of Portland is the number one mineral port on the West Coast and the number one wheat exporting port in the United States. Other commodities include soda ash (used for glass) and potash (used as a fertilizer). In addition, the port handled 200,000 containers in 2012. It’s a port of entry for automakers like Toyota, which sends cars from the port to 30 states.

According to Berglund, shippers choose Portland for its multi-modal connections. The port has access to two Class I railroads—Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe. It’s a direct shot to the Midwest from the port. By comparison, Seattle-Tacoma is at a steeper grade, which requires more fuel, Berglund said.

The port has been able to upgrade its facilities in recent years thanks to an innovative program called Connect Oregon.

“Connect Oregon is a program that the 2005 legislature passed,” said Price. “Many of the modes … besides highways do not have a dedicated funding source. In Oregon, the gas tax monies are prohibited from being spent on anything other than what we call tailpipe issues. So you can’t get it to fund higher ed or you can’t get it to fund police. It has to be for highway purposes. So the port working with (the Oregon Department of Transportation) and key stakeholders, rail-shippers, etc. came up with this idea.”

The program relies on lottery-backed bonds to fund grants and loans for multi-modal freight and transit projects. Rail, marine, air and transit projects around the state are eligible. Bike and pedestrian infrastructure projects were also added this year. Both public and private entities can receive the funding.

The first three iterations of Connect Oregon provided $100 million in lottery-backed bonds. The last two legislative sessions (2011 and 2013) provided $40 million and $42 million respectively.

Over the years, the port has received $17.7 million for aviation-related projects, $24.4 million for marine-related projects, and $16.8 million for rail projects.

“We’re kind of the little engine that could here at the Port of Portland but we are a vital part of Oregon’s economy,” Price said. “Whether it is Connect Oregon or highway projects, why we get so involved in transportation is because every little bit counts to offset—at least for the port—our costs.”

The Port of Portland isn’t the only beneficiary of the Connect Oregon program, Price noted. Each of the state’s five regions is guaranteed some Connect Oregon funding so the program is very popular throughout the state.

“Connect Oregon … we put money throughout the state,” said Price. “I don’t know that there ever will not be the battle that Portland gets everything. Your states have that I’m sure. With that said, with the infrastructure, what Connect was trying not to do was peanut butter. But by necessity by putting money in the regions you could argue that. However, my rail improvement out here has an impact of thousands of jobs potentially. In rural Oregon, that rail improvement may have an impact of 10 jobs. But I would argue strongly that that is just as important as my thousands because there are not that many jobs out there and (those jobs) can make that community a better place. And so I think there has become that recognition that while we can thump our chest up here, it’s not just about us. The port impacts well over 1,000 businesses throughout the state of Oregon, whether it’s that FedEx feeder plane that delivers the packages or that person who’s going off to school or going international, they’re still our customers and they still need to get from point A to point B.”

Moreover, Price says, Oregon historically has been an innovator in transportation and transportation funding and will likely continue to be so in the years ahead.

“Oregon has been on the leading edge both with Connect and then as we go forward in not only the modes that people use to move themselves and freight around but, too, how to fund it going into the future,” she said. “That’s the conversation that we’re about to embark on. … I’m not aware of any state or country that’s absolutely figured out the Rubik’s Cube that is transportation funding. You all know that the infrastructure is crumbling and you have to pay for it, yet nobody wants to pay for it seemingly. We’re going to have that discussion and it’s going to be entertaining, painful and interesting all at once.”

Additional Resources

Port of Portland website

“Hitting the Lotto Jackpot: States Look for New Ways to Finance Freight Transport,” Capitol Ideas, March-April, 2012 (article on Connect Oregon)