Bellingham port hearing set for issuing bonds for modernization - Salish Current
June 14, 2024
Bellingham port hearing set for issuing bonds for modernization
Matt Benoit

Removal by ABC Recycling of its large stockpile of metal scrap is one of two activities currently underway at the Port of Bellingham’s shipping terminal. (Amy Nelson / Salish Current © 2024)

June 14, 2024
Bellingham port hearing set for issuing bonds for modernization
Matt Benoit

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Two-year, $27.5 million project promises wider range of cargo and living wage jobs to enhance city’s shipping industry.

The future of several Bellingham waterfront projects will be the subject of a public hearing at the Port of Bellingham’s administrative office on Tuesday, June 18.

The 4 p.m. meeting at the port’s Harbor Center room at 1801 Roeder Avenue will cover the potential issuing of general obligation bonds to help rehabilitate the shipping terminal pier located at 629 Cornwall Avenue, and to repair pilings and steel beams under the Bellingham Cruise Terminal in Fairhaven.

Bonds for the shipping pier project could run up to $10.7 million, while bonds for the cruise terminal could be as much as $4.3 million. The shipping pier project is part of the Port’s Shipping Terminal Modernization Project, a roughly two-year, $27.5 million project to allow a wider range of cargo and living wage jobs to enhance the city’s shipping industry. 

The public hearing will be followed by a port commission vote on a resolution authorizing the issuance and sale of Limited Tax General Obligation bonds. 

The project fits into the Port’s master plan for reinventing the Bellingham waterfront as a mixed-use environment of thriving residential and commercial interests. The Bellingham Shipping Terminal Modernization Project 2023–2025 began in earnest this January with in-water dredging, and a second round of dredging is slated to begin in August. 

The project is supported with a $6.85 million U.S. Department of Transportation Port Infrastructure Development Program Grant, leaving roughly $20 million of the project to be footed by the Port itself. 

Michael Hogan, public affairs administrator for the Port, said in an email that the bonds will have no impact on local taxpayers.

“The Port is anticipating revenues will pay for the debt service,” he said. 

Increasing capacity

The Port’s modernization project has several goals.

The Port proposes to restore a direct rail connection at the Bellingham Shipping Terminal with the BNSF mainline in the hopes of attracting high-value cargo. (Port of Bellingham)

The modernization project will strengthen the shipping terminal’s main dock by replacing 140 feet of deteriorating and damaged wharf with a new dock capable of supporting heavier cargo and equipment. This would allow the Port’s 120-metric ton mobile crane to be installed on the main dock itself, boosting overall efficiency according to the port website. A barge ramp will also be added to support increased activity and create a multi-use terminal. 

The project will also increase the navigation depth of the terminal from -26 feet to -35 feet, allowing a wider range of potential cargo to be offloaded.

Hogan said that includes what’s known as “breakbulk” cargo, meaning goods that don’t fit into standard-size shipping containers. This includes cars, manufacturing equipment, windmills, food products and construction equipment, among other examples. 

“There is a big potential market for this type of cargo in Washington,” Hogan said. “Unfortunately, the Port has not been able to accommodate most of the shipping traffic due to navigation restrictions in the Whatcom Waterway related to a footprint of historic contamination. After the shipping terminal modernization project is complete, the terminal will have the navigation depth necessary to accommodate a wide variety of potential cargos,” Hogan said.

Automobile shipping in particular is something the Port has their eye on, he said, as more than a dozen of auto manufacturers currently ship cars into the Port of Vancouver. That’s made those terminals quite congested, resulting in significant delays getting cars to market, Hogan said. 

Currently, the shipping terminal’s activity is just two-fold.

• ABC Recycling — whom the Port terminated its metal recycling contract with earlier this spring — is continuing to remove its large metal stockpile via various cargo vessels, a process it must complete by June 30 in order to avoid fines. 

Boulders from local quarries are loaded onto barges at the Bellingham shipping terminal. (Port of Bellingham)

• Giant basalt rocks — some weighing up to 35 tons — driven to the terminal from local quarries are loaded onto Columbia River-bound barges as part of a jetty repair project at the mouth of the river.

The Port has also reached an agreement with Burlington Northern Santa Fe to create a rail spur, which would provide access to the company’s railroad network to further enhance shipping. While ship-to-rail cargo is an efficient, low-carbon method for goods, it’s also expensive: The port estimates the project will cost about $18 million, more than $14 million of which it is requesting federal grants for.

As part of the modernization project, the Port also plans to make positive environmental impacts, removing 22,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, installing a new stormwater management system, and allowing vessels to plug into on-shore electricity while berthed. 

Opportunities … and concerns

On the whole, literature from the Port said numerous family-wage job opportunities for longshoremen, shipyard and rail workers, truckers and freight forwarders will come from the project. 

However, with it come concerns about evening noise, lights, air quality and truck traffic.  

Hogan said the Port is currently pursuing future cargos that would be substantially less impactful than the metal recycling ABC has conducted, and the future rail spur should help minimize any impacts. 

The Port also hired an independent sound consultant to conduct monitoring, which was confirmed to be in compliance with the city’s noise ordinance. A sound barrier was also built out of shipping containers in the cargo loading area, and continues being adjusted to maximize noise reduction. In addition, quieter back-up alarms, adjustments to cargo loading hours and other modifications have been made to reduce noise from continuing ABC work. 

Dan Tucker, program manager for the Working Waterfront Coalition of Whatcom County, said in an email that any issues faced by the community in the past year were simply outliers.

An aerial shot shows proximity of the shipping terminal to Sehome Hill. (Port of Bellingham)

“There are tremendous opportunities for the shipping terminal,” he said. “Those opportunities shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of acute issues that arose with one particular operator.” 

Not everyone agrees. 

Scott Jones, founder of the Save the Waterfront coalition, said he and others are worried that the Port will mismanage the project as it has past endeavors, including a failed bid to land a Marine Operations Center for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

Combined with the largely negative response to ABC Recycling’s tenure at the shipping terminal, as well as continuing issues with Harcourt Developments — the waterfront condo contractor that defaulted on its Port contract last fall and is now being sued — Jones and others have largely lost faith in the Port’s ability to execute its ambitions. 

“The Port has made so many bad decisions recently,” Jones said in an email. “Further focus on a forced pet project that does not meet the needs of the community will limit energies given to industry that will enhance needed good-paying jobs, and enhance the community as a whole.”

Jones added that he is unsure the port actually needs to renovate the shipping terminal to the extent that it is planning, as it has generally never been a diversified terminal historically. While Jones said the coalition looks forward to learning more about the project, they will continue pressing the Port to focus on more tangible, economically-beneficial projects. 

“The shipping terminal,” he said, “does not seem to be one of them.”

— By Matt Benoit

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