By ELAINE WILLIAMS of the Tribune
The area’s elected officials got a rare chance Wednesday to thank a Cabinet official on their home turf for the $1.3 million his agency gave to an expansion of the Port of Lewiston’s container dock.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood toured the dock that stands in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley, one of the few U.S. communities of about 50,000 that’s more than an hour away from a multilane interstate highway.
LaHood answered media questions and heard praise of the grant from Idaho’s governor, senators and the port president.
The port received a $1.3 million grant in June from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery Discretionary Grant program. The money will help the port add 150 feet to its 120-foot container dock, which handles paper and agricultural products. The goods are barged to Portland, Ore., then transferred to bigger vessels to be shipped overseas.
The Obama administration is committed to the Snake/Columbia river transportation system as well as similar water corridors in other parts of the United States, LaHood said. “You relieve congestion on highways. … We call this a marine highway.”
TIGER grants have gone to about 25 port projects throughout the country, LaHood said. “They become a real economic engine for job creation. …This is a great example of tax dollars being well spent.”
LaHood asked about water depth around the dock as David Doeringsfeld, manager of the Port of Lewiston, showed him around with Idaho Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter.
It’s about 17 or 18 feet and the area gets dredged every seven to eight years, Doeringsfeld said.
“Is wind energy taking off in Idaho?” LaHood said.
It is, but its future depends on government subsidies and eventually finding its own way in the free market, Otter said.
After Doeringsfeld pointed to the crane that lifts containers, Otter asked if the port had a second crane. No, Doeringsfeld replied, noting that buying one would start at $2 million just for the crane, and not other expenses affiliated with putting it at the port.
LaHood sat or stood under a white awning during much of his visit, listening to remarks. Among those who spoke were Jerry Klemm, president of Lewiston’s port commission; David Jordan, vice president of distribution at Clearwater Paper; Otter; and U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, R-Idaho.
“We’re delighted to have the opportunity to expand and we couldn’t have done it without your help,” Klemm said.
Clearwater Paper occupies 840 acres in Lewiston, has an annual payroll of $94 million and pays $9 million a year in state and federal taxes, Jordan said.
The company manufactures paperboard that’s made into items like cups or boxes for golf balls and tissue for facial tissue, paper napkins, paper towels and toilet paper, Jordan said.
“This port is truly our gateway to the world,” Jordan said, who pointed to a blue container heading to Korea carrying Clearwater Paper’s goods.
Next to throwing, water is the cheapest way to move goods, Otter said.
“This is an example of the right kind of example of expenditure, building up our infrastructure,” Crapo said.
Idaho’s congressional delegation was able to sell the dock work because it doubled the capacity of the dock at a low cost, Risch said. “You made a very wise decision in approving this project.”
In addition to $1.3 million in federal dollars, the port received a $600,000 state loan for the $2.9 million job.
Others in the crowd of about 50 were a mix representing the public and private sectors. They included Jim Bennett, Lewiston city manager; Tony Fernandez, president of Lewis-Clark State College; and a representative of Avista.
Law enforcement kept close tabs on the activity. Attendees had to pass through a checkpoint manned by Lewiston police and other security officers were stationed at the container dock.
Among those not admitted were six placard-carrying protesters who stood in a shady spot well out of LaHood’s view around a Wild Idaho Rising Tide banner. One played a tuba and held a sign with the words “Taxpayer Hoax.”
Friends of the Clearwater and Idaho Rivers United both issued statements criticizing the use of federal dollars at the port.
“Port business has been declining steadily since 2000, and the port has never been self sustaining,” according to a prepared statement by Bill Sedivy, Idaho Rivers United executive director. “Soon taxpayers will also be asked to fund a multiyear dredging program to keep this declining waterway system operational.”
Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.