PORT BILL AN ABSOLUTE MUST

CONGRESS SIMPLY MUST recognize the need for enactment of the pending water resources legislation, without delay, in this session.

This may seem to be a presumptuous and unnecessary comment, since both the House and Senate already have passed bills on the subject - in November 1985, and March of this year, respectively. However, the bills differ in significant ways. The House-Senate conference committee organized last June to reconcile those differences or find some way around them has held no meetings since then. There has been a good deal of staff work, to be sure, but no definite, conclusive agreements by the conferees. If there are some developments along those lines this week, as has been hoped, it will come not a moment too soon.At this late date, the single imperative is to get legislation passed that will provide authorization and funding for bringing main channels and anchorages in the nation's ports up to modern-day standards for ocean shipping. To speed enactment of this long-overdue measure, ports have agreed to accept a completely new responsibility for sharing costs with the federal government - this in addition to the considerable expenses ports have traditionally borne, such as dredging between main channels and terminal berths and the construction of all-important on-shore facilities.

Existing main channels in several ports that are major gateways of our ocean commerce have been shown to be inadequate. Incredibly, as the American Association of Port Authorities has emphasized, it has been 16 years since Congress adopted a "new projects" bill for the ports, meaning legislation to fund actual improvements, such as deepening and widening of channels, rather than simple maintenance of existing depths.

It would be a serious mistake for any representative or senator to suppose that failure to act on the water resources bill at this session would mean a delay of only a few months, until the next Congress can handle the matter. Lawmakers who have had a leading role in guiding the present bills to passage expect to be on different committees in the 100th Congress. The whole task of explaining and explaining and explaining why the legislation is so important would have to begin all over again.

AAPA fears that it might well be three years before new legislation could be enacted and signed. Meanwhile, this great trading nation has ports where today's big merchant ships may scrape bottom, or can be admitted only when the tide permits.

Surely it can now be said of the pending bills that all the facts are in, all the arguments heard, many times over. The one essential now is action to assure passage and signing of the new water resources bill during the current session of Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kan., has issued a list of "must" bills that should be acted upon before adjournment this year, and, most unfortunately, the water resources bill is not included. The mistake should be rectified. Granted, "water resources" as a subject does not convey the sense of broad appeal that bills for "clean water" and "product liability" - both on Sen. Dole's list - may carry. But the importance of bringing our port channels up to modern standards and getting started with the totally new approach to cost-sharing and financing is much too great for Congress to ignore. The drastically new cost-recovery system upon which the Reagan administration has insisted in itself caused long delays in congressional action where there had been years of neglect.

Because of the short time frame remaining, may we suggest that some of the controversial elements of the legislation might reasonably be put aside for later determination. For example, the use of a ship's draft as the sole criterion for determining whether or not the vessel should be assessed a user charge is such an item. Devising the actual formula for such a complex assessment could be left to the Army Corps of Engineers, for study and recommendation to be completed over the next year. That sounds logical enough. Perhaps there are some other aspects of the legislation that could be handled in the same way.

But the single message for Congress at this stage is: Get the bill passed, and on the books. More delay could have truly serious consequences.

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