Shipping Association Fights Port Tax on Passing Vessels

Merchant vessel traffic passing Astoria on the Columbia River (file image)

By The Maritime Executive 09-19-2019 08:44:40

An association of shipping companies is suing to block a new harbor maintenance tax recently enacted by the Port of Astoria, which levies a $300 fee on each passing vessel. 

Astoria does not generally berth large merchant vessels, but the adjacent Columbia River Bar is a busy channel for traffic to the ports of Longview, Vancouver and Portland. The port's new fee covers all vessels over 250 feet long that pass by Astoria in a federal navigation channel. According to the Columbia River Steamship Operators' Association, the Port of Astoria will use the fee to pay for maintenance at its Berth 1, which primarily serves cruise ships. 

The association objects to the tax because it is only levied on large ships passing by, which do not receive any services from the port in return. CRSOA contends that this is effectively a state-level tonnage tax (which the U.S. Constitution forbids under the Tonnage Clause) and, since local barges and fishing vessels are not affected, an act of discrimination against vessels engaged in interstate commerce (potentially unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause). 

"The Transit Tax bears no reasonable relationship to any actual costs incurred by Port of Astoria to provide any services to the assessed vessels. In fact, the assessed vessels neither request nor receive any services from the Port of Astoria. Nor do the assessed vessel communicate in any way with the Port of Astoria—the only contact the vessels have with the Port of Astoria is when their local husbanding agents receive a $300 invoice," the CRSOA's suit contends. "[The tax] burdens interstate commerce by treating transiting vessels like floating ATM machines."

The Port expected the suit and has budgeted $75,000 in advance for related legal costs, according to the Daily Astorian. 

Port of Astoria has long-running financial challenges, which it acknowledged in a fiscal evaluation report in May. "The Port’s current financial condition is the result of many years of mismanagement and neglect of infrastructure. The current list of unfunded maintenance needs is overwhelming," the port's ad hoc finance committee wrote. "It is highly unlikely that the Port will be able to overcome its financial challenges on its own. Additional state or federal public investment will be required."

Cruise marketing manager accused of ethics violations

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission has concluded an investigation into the business practices and official duties of the Port of Astoria's cruise port marketer, Bruce Conner, and it alleges that Conner used his post to promote his own shore excursion business to cruise lines. In addition to his role at the port, Conner owns Sundial Travel, which markets local tours for cruise passengers. 

According to the Ethics Commission, Conner allegedly “[posted] descriptions of his company's shore excursions on the Port of Astoria's website." One shore excursion presently listed on the port's site, a "Shot in Astoria" movie location tour, corresponds to an excursion that Sundial Travel marketed as recently as 2010. The commission also alleged that Conner sought support from cruise line officials for a port policy "that had the effect of prohibiting other tour operators from competing."