Thirty-four national trade associations representing port authorities, water carriers, retailers and other shippers, the construction industry and unions, along with dozens of state-level business groups, signed a letter this week urging members of the U.S. Senate to support quick passage of the Water Resources Development Act.
The Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee unanimously approved the bill in late March and forwarded it for Senate consideration. It spells out what types of harbor and inland waterway improvements are eligible for funding and would streamline the way the Army Corps of Engineers studies and issues permits for projects such as dredging.
The last WRDA was enacted in 2007.
The Senate WRDA bill includes language requiring that all money collected from the Harbor Maintenance Tax on imports and coast-wise transportation is dedicated towards keeping harbor channels at their authorized depth and width. Under current practice, Congress only allows about half of the $1.6 billion in receipts to be used for navigation improvements, with the rest used to make the federal deficit look smaller. The bill prioritizes spending on deep-draft ports unless all the HMT funds are used for their intended purpose.
The bill also authorizes 18 types of new construction projects, but delegates responsibility to the Corps for selecting specific projects to undertake. Since WRDA does not include any funding, it is unclear how much money will go for navigation projects considering the authorization also covers flood control, storm surge protection, environmental restoration and related Army Corps missions. Based on the Corps' annual budget in recent years, the amount of money appropriated for harbor deepening is likely to fall well short of the project backlog.
"Maintaining our nation’s federal channels to constructed dimensions and deepening channels to ensure the U.S. continues to have a world-class maritime transportation system are of critical importance to the health of the port and barge industries and the businesses and jobs that rely on them. International trade accounts for more than a quarter of the nation’s GDP and more than 38 million American jobs," the letter drafted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said.
"The United States needs to create a modern lock and dam infrastructure on the nation’s inland waterways," it added. "Effectively, all of America’s exports in commodities such as coal, fuel oils, gasoline, crude petroleum, and agriculture products such as grain and soy beans are shipped by water. Waterways are critical to keeping our domestic supply chain competitive. There is a $14-per-ton cost savings for shipping on the inland waterways; this translates to farmer, shipper, and consumer cost savings, and reduced congestion on the roads and rails. However, while the private sector constantly updates its operations, our 21st century economy relies on 1930s-era technology for locks and dams."
The House of Representatives has held hearings but not written a WRDA bill of its own yet.
An in-depth analysis of the politics behind the WRDA bill and the investment gap for ports and inland waterways can be found in the feature story "Dredging up Dollars
" in the May issue
of American Shipper
. - Eric Kulisch