The Water Resources Reform and Development Act introduced last week in the U.S. House of Representatives would gradually address the underutilization of user fees collected in the Harbor Maintenance Trust fund, but Rep. Janice Hahn says she'll continue to battle for full restoration of the fund to ensure ports are adequately dredged for commercial traffic.
The Harbor Maintenance Tax is assessed on imported goods and coast-wise shipments to pay for dredging aimed at maintaining ports at their authorized depth and width, but for many years Congress has only approved half the money for its intended purpose. The other half is diverted to cover other spending in the federal budget.
Last year HMTF took in $1.7 billion.
Among its many provisions, the WRRDA bill would tap 65 percent of the trust fund for harbor maintenance and then bump up the threshold each year until 80 percent of the fund was full used for navigation channels by 2020.
In an op-ed piece in Wednesday's edition of The Hill, the co-founder of the congressional PORTS Caucus said the consensus bill from the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leadership doesn't go far enough.
"We need to do more. Our economy cannot afford six more years of not dredging our ports, six more years of groaning under billions of dollars of added costs," Hahn wrote. "The Army Corps of Engineers says they could have all of our commercial deep draft harbors fully dredged in five years, if only we gave them the funds to do it. Our ports need 100 percent of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and they need it now."
The House T&I Committee is scheduled to debate and edit the bill Thursday, at which point Hahn, D-Calif., could offer an amendment seeking 100 percent use of the HMTF, as called for sponsors of the RAMP Act. But the chances of success are slim because of the ongoing battle in Congress over the debt ceiling and the budget. The HMTF is being used to offset other spending and mask the size of the deficit during a time of austerity. The WRRDA bill was designed to be revenue neutral, so any increase of funding for dredging would require lawmakers to cuts elsewhere in the budget.