Lane County examines Coos Bay port proposal.
Plans for a $700 million shipping port in Coos Bay were met Wednesday with "cautious support" from Lane County Commissioner Bill Fleenor, words that also described the general response from the county board.
Officials with the Port of Coos Bay presented their plan for a facility that would be built by 2019 and could provide an economic boost to the South Coast unrivaled in decades.
Although the port is in Coos County, major improvements to a railroad line that runs through Lane County are necessary to transport the goods to the Midwest.
Port officials are negotiating with the U.S. arm of the world's largest shipping company, Denmark-based A.P. Moller-Maersk Group, to bring as many as 2 million shipping containers to Coos Bay's North Spit each year, about five times as many as are received at the Port of Portland.
Fleenor, who represents western Lane County residents closest to the port, said his support is tempered by concern about the "poor to pathetic" condition of the railroad line that would move the goods to Eugene-Springfield and beyond.
"This is going to be the weakest link," he said.
Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad hasn't said whether it will spend the $150 million necessary to improve its aging single-track line linking Coquille and Eugene.
Project supporters have said the railroad will get $1 billion back in new business for its investment.
The project could bring 2,500 jobs to the coast and 10,000 new jobs statewide, many of them in Eugene-Springfield, officials have said.
Commissioner Peter Sorenson said there are numerous issues but also "an untapped economic development opportunity."
"I'm taking a special interest in this whole project," he said. "If we can play a role in this, it might be good for Lane County residents."
Commissioner Faye Stewart also said the opportunities are exciting, while Commissioners Bill Dwyer and Bobby Green appeared noncommittal.
Green stumped Jeff Bishop, the port's executive director, when he asked him whether the board's opposition could derail the project. Bishop said he didn't know.
The project could face environmental hurdles, given the need to dramatically deepen the shipping channel in Coos Bay.
Oyster beds won't be affected because they're in a bay away from the site, but crab habitat could be harmed, Bishop said. Restoration projects are possible remedies, he added.
Eugene resident Lauri Segel criticized county staff for what she called an unbalanced report favoring the project and lacking detail on costs and hazards.
Coos Bay is also one of five sites in Oregon seeking federal approval to receive supercooled natural gas from overseas.
Officials have said a gas explosion involving a tanker ship at port could be catastrophic.
That high-risk business is incompatible with an expansion of the port that will ramp up traffic significantly, Segel said.