As spring rains swell rivers and their tributaries throughout the central and southern U.S., the waters carry silt into the shallow bays and coastal waters lining the Gulf of Mexico. The perennial shoaling requires most Gulf ports to conduct regular dredging to maintain channel depth.
In recent years, budget targets assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works program by the Office of Management and Budget and congressional appropriations have lagged the amounts the corps required to meet ports’ needs to maintain channel draft. The result has been to leave the corps short of funds to perform maintenance dredging from the Great Lakes to the East and West coasts and the Gulf of Mexico.
Last year, for example, the corps budgeted some $36 million to dredge the Houston Ship Channel, but Congress appropriated only $19 million.
The corps does manage to dredge some 400 million cubic yards of material from nearly 25,000 miles of navigation channels each year. It’s a job the corps has been handling since before the Civil War when the steamship Henry Burden was converted into a suction dredge to deepen the Cape Fear River below Wilmington, N.C.
Congress directed the corps in 1978 to privatize its dredging fleet. The 1986 Water Resources Development Act required the project costs of all improvement and maintenance of federal navigation channels to be shared based on channel depth. The Harbor Maintenance Tax and Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund were created the same year. A 1999 report criticized the privatization of the dredging fleet as unsuccessful and recommended it be reversed, but a subsequent report a year later glossed over the recommendation.
In the meantime, harbor maintenance appropriations since 2003 have stagnated, and many ports whose dredging programs were underfunded have undertaken non-federally funded dredging projects just to stay open. But the situation is worsening. Today, the corps estimates that full channel drafts at the nation’s 59 public seaports are available less than 35 percent of the time. Cargo vessels are forced to lighten loads offshore to reduce draft or wait until high tides to enter and leave port.
The dredging backlog in the Great Lakes is estimated to top $200 million.
At the Houston Port Authority, Chief Executive Alec Dreyer said 80 percent of the Houston Ship Channel today is less than its designed draft. Earlier this year, the Associated Branch Pilots of the Mississippi River began limiting ship drafts to no more than 44 feet — 1 foot short of the level authorized by Congress — and restricting shipping hours. Each 1-foot reduction in draft causes a loss of between $250,000 and $800,000 per vessel.
Last month, Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, Carl Levin, D-Mich., and a bipartisan group of 12 other senators co-sponsored the Harbor Maintenance Act of 2011, or S. 412, which seeks to use the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to pay for maintenance dredging projects as it was intended to do so.
The HMTF raises about $1.5 billion annually, and has a $5.7 billion surplus because the corps has access to only about half the fund’s annual revenue after HMT funds are rerouted to the general tax fund. Because the HMTF’s revenue and expenditures are part of the overall budget, if the trust fund does not spend all its revenue, the “surplus” helps offset deficits in the rest of the general budget.
Last year, for example, the dedicated tax on imported and domestic cargo arriving at U.S. ports deposited nearly $1.4 billion into the HMTF, but the Treasury Department transferred only $793 million to the corps for harbor maintenance.
The effort to dedicate the HMTF to maintenance and operations of ports — its intended use — isn’t new. When Capt. William Schubert joined the Maritime Administration in 2001, the HMTF was almost $1.8 billion. Schubert made promoting the HMTF spend-down a priority during his tenure as maritime administrator, but at the time many observers believed the U.S. port community couldn’t reach a consensus on a national level. The HMTF has continued to grow — it was $2.7 billion when Schubert left in 2005 — and today has more than doubled that figure.
A similar bill, Realize America’s Maritime Promise Act, has been introduced in the House by Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., R-La., and has the bipartisan support of more than a dozen other lawmakers.
S. 412 includes a guarantee requiring the total amount appropriated from the HMTF each year be equal to trust fund receipts plus interest as estimated by the president’s budget. With more than a dozen congressional lawmakers behind it, S. 412 is a positive step.
Janet Plume, senior editor of Breakbulk magazine, a sister publication of The Journal of Commerce, has lived in New Orleans for 30 years. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.