Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., digging deeper into specifics of the next multi-year surface transportation bill, says he wants to use the measure to revamp the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to spend down its large balances.
Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has had the panel’s staff drafting parts of a bill to offer this month. He earlier told The Journal of Commerce he wants to get the transportation bill through his committee in late May or early June.
Using up the harbor fund balances has been a key demand of ports and other users of the coastal marine infrastructure. The harbor maintenance tax is collected on imports and on domestic cargo shipments using the coastal waterways, to fund channel dredging and other infrastructure needs.
But the fund often spends a little more than half the $1.3 billion or more it takes in each year, and has built up a balance of about $5 billion. Infrastructure groups say that unused money could give ports and harbors a big injection of needed funds for dredging work that often languishes. Keeping its balances high effectively allows the government to spend the excess cargo collections in other areas of the budget, or count its balance against the budget deficit.
Mica, in a May 23 opinion column in the Politico newspaper, said the bill his committee produces will not only address the traditional highway and transit programs that make up most surface transportation spending, “but also make significant reforms in our rail and maritime transportation policies.”
He said the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund “is critical for dredging and other harbor channel improvements,” but that “these funds are not being used for their intended purpose of maintaining our ports.” He also said the fund “must not remain caught up in the budgetary gimmicks.”
Those comments strongly suggest Mica’s panel will put language into the transportation bill that requires the balances to be spent, along with amounts collected each year. That would give the port and coastal waterway industry a onetime infusion of another $5 billion, plus several hundred million each year of additional spending.