The Department of Transportation's new National Freight Advisory Committee on Thursday unanimously recommended that Congress pass legislation to ensure the full amount of Harbor Maintenance Tax collected each year from seaport users is spent for dredging to keep shipping channels at their maximum authorized depth, according to the American Great Lakes Port Association.
The National Freight Advisory Committee (NFAC) is comprised of 47 voting members from various disciplines outside the DOT. It was established under last year's MAP-21 surface transportation bill. Paul C. LaMarree, III, executive director of the Port of Monroe, Mich., is a member of the American Great Lakes Port Association and sits on the NFAC.
In recent years, Congress has only allocated about half the receipts in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for their intended purpose, preferring to use the balance as a cover for other deficit spending. The HMTF current has a balance of more than $8 billion.
Port authorities, shipping interests and cargo owners for many years have called on Congress to spend all the money in HMTF for dredging as bigger ships become the standard for moving international cargo. In many instances, especially in the Great Lakes, ships cannot load to their full capacity because silt isn't being regularly removed to keep the channels at their prescribed depths.
The NFAC's recommendation will go to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to present to the Obama administration, which could request congressional action on the proposal. Doing so, however, may not be part of any broad budget deal because Congress and the administration are under extreme pressure to reign in spending. President Obama and other top officials have made a big point of highlighting the importance of seaports and infrastructure investment in a series of speeches and port visits this year, but have not made any funding proposals specific to the maritime sector. The White House's main effort so far to improve port infrastructure involves streamlining the permitting process for several high-priority projects.
There is already strong support in Congress to reform how maintenance dredging is funded. The House recently passed a water resources bill that would set new targets each year for use of the HMTF until 80 percent of the money was fully used by 2020. The Senate version of the bill includes language ensuring all HMT revenues are spent for port maintenance, with some qualifications to protect the rest of the Army Corps of Engineers' budget. Both chambers are working to reconcile differences and agree on a common bill they can vote on.
An ad hoc panel on freight issues of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last month issued a report that called for dredging appropriations equal to the revenue collected in the trust fund.