By Eric Kulisch
Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and leaders of the House PORTS Caucus visited the American Association of Port Authorities spring conference in Washington last week to express their commitment to seaports as vital engines of economic growth.
Mica received a standing ovation as he accepted the AAPA's "Port Person of the Year" award during a lunch ceremony. The AAPA honored him in large part because the five-year surface transportation reauthorization bill he shepherded through his committee is the first of its kind to include a maritime chapter and he supports harbor maintenance tax (HMT) receipts being fully utilized for navigational improvements instead of being held in reserve to cover other federal spending.
The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) is projected to have an accumulated balance of almost $7 billion this fiscal year while port directors say the Army Corps of Engineers isn't doing enough to maintain channel depths to accommodate rising volumes of ocean trade. The U.S. government collects $1.4 billion per year for dredging by taxing imported and domestic waterborne cargo, as well as cruise tickets, but only about $800 million of that amount is expended for channel maintenance.
Maritime advocates say infrastructure improvements are needed so that exporters can efficiently get goods to foreign markets and remain competitive. Draft restrictions prevent larger ships from loading to their full capacity and raise shipping costs, or may cause carriers to divert to ports with adequate depths. According to the AAPA, federal channels only have available on average less than 35 percent of their authorized channel dimensions. The trade association has been pushing a bill from Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., that would dedicate all proceeds from the harbor maintenance tax for dredging port channels to their authorized depths and widths. The amount collected each year is sufficient to meet the nation's needs, dredging supporters insist.
Port officials had hoped to get the RAMP (Realizing America's Maritime Promise) Act in the House transportation blueprint, but the reauthorization bill simply communicates Congress' opinion that the administration should request full use of the HMTF and that Congress should appropriate all the money to maintain navigation channels. The Democrat-controlled Senate recently gave bipartisan approval for a two-year, $109 billion transportation-framework bill that similarly includes a non-binding resolution expressing the "sense of Congress" towards the HMT. Disagreements in the Republican-led House over how the Senate version pays for the spending have stalled the bill's progress and led to preparations for a three-month extension of the existing law, which expires March 31.
House leaders say they plan to bring up a new version of their proposal, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act. Boustany will try to add language strengthening the section on the HMTF, spokesman Neal Patel said via e-mail.
On March 7, Boustany, R-La., and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., asked the House Budget Committee in writing to fully allocate HMTF receipts toward dredging. The letter points out that five ships ran aground in January on the Lower Mississippi River while ports on the Great lakes are experiencing shorter shipping seasons because of low water levels at certain times of year and the lack of fully dredged channels. According to the Lake Carriers' Association, years of neglect have left more than 17 million cubic yards of sediment clogging ports and waterways.
Last fall, shipments to St. Joseph, Mich., had to be suspended until emergency funds could be found to clear the harbor and a shipment of coal to a power plant in Holland, Mich., could not be delivered in December because of silt buildup in the harbor, it said. The Army Corps of Engineers only plans to dredge 16 of the 63 federally maintained ports on the Great Lakes, the group said.
Mica told port directors from around the country that the money in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund must be dedicated for its intended purpose. "Robbing Peter to pay someone else has to stop. We've got to make certain that the fees that are collected by the maritime industry go back into the infrastructure," he said.
"The games have to stop with using funds for other purposes.... I'm going to do everything I can to make certain that provision prevails, in whatever legislation we pass," he stressed.
The House Republican transportation bill would require the Department of Transportation to study the nation's strategic ports and determine whether they have enough capacity and land-side intermodal connectivity to efficiently move goods in a secure manner.
Meanwhile, Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., introduced a resolution
in conjunction with the AAPA conference emphasizing the need for decision-makers to recognize the importance of ports when setting policy. The resolution notes that ports contribute to $3.1 trillion in economic activity per year, move more than 99 percent of overseas cargo volume by weight and that every $1 billion in exports through ports supports 15,000 jobs.
Hahn, a former Los Angeles City councilman who filled the open seat left by the retirement of Rep. Jane Harmon last summer, is the founder and co-chairman of the Ports Opportunity, Renewal, Trade and Security (PORTS) Caucus.
The 40 members of the bipartisan group held their first meeting last month. The caucus plans to visit the Port of Los Angeles in the near future, co-chairman Ted Poe, R-Texas, said at a separate AAPA session.
The mission of the caucus is to create public awareness about the importance of ports to the economy and help set the agenda for improving the efficiency and security of ports, with an eye towards preparing for the expansion of the Panama Canal in 2015 and the expected increase in larger vessels from Asia seeking to call at East and Gulf coast ports.
Hahn said ports deserve a "much higher priority in our national discussion."
Ports need to renew and upgrade facilities, and have congestion-free access to highways and railroads, to function properly, Poe added.
"It's vital that we don't get to the point of no return in some ports because they haven't gotten maintenance from the Corps that it's beyond repair," he said.