Port proponents on Thursday urged Congress to streamline the federal maritime project review process and boost spending by reforming the way harbor maintenance taxes are allocated in the next Water Resources Development Act.
A Senate Environment and Public Works committee has begun work on creating legislation key to investing in the national maritime infrastructure and authorizing the deepening of East Coast ports, but it’s highly unlikely Congress will finish the bill by the end of the year. The last WRDA was passed in 2007.
“We are calling upon the committee to consider a series of streamlining and efficiency provisions that permit more flexibility and new options for financing and maintaining federal channel projects,” said Jerry Bridges, American Association of Port Authorities board chairman. “This will aid our industry’s ability to capture the benefits sooner and increase transportation savings to shippers, producers, exporters and consumers.”
Bridges said some of the Army Corps of Engineers studies have been stalled for year after being held up by “technical or policy conflicts.” The maritime industry’s push for project streamlining is similar to House Republicans' successful effort to speed up project delivery through the recently passed $105 billion surface transportation bill.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., called the Army Corps a “broken bureaucracy” that he hopes to help reform through a bill that would quicken the delivery of flood control and navigation projects. There is a roughly $60 billion backlog in Corps projects, which is more than 10 times the agency’s annual budget, according to the senator’s office.
Bridges also urged Congress to reform the way HMT were spent, so that all of the roughly $1.5 billion collected annually would go toward maritime projects, not just about $800 million. The surface transportation bill included language urging the remaining money not to be used to fill budgets gaps, but the request isn’t binding.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, said fixing the way revenue from Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is spent is “definitely something we want to do” in the WRDA. U.S. ports’ infrastructure needs could be handled if the all the HMT went toward dredging and other projects, particularly considering the fund is expected to have a nearly $7 billion surplus by fiscal 2013.
Inland waterways face similar challenges. After years of shippers and carriers being able to rely on the cheapest mode of transport, the nation’s inland waterway system “hinges on the brink of collapse,” said Rick Calhoun, president of Cargo Carriers, a subsidiary of major shipper Cargill. Ninety-nine percent of locks and damns on the inland waterway system saw unscheduled delays in 2009, according to a recent American Society of Civil Engineers study.
ASCE President Andrew Hermann said the costs to fix the infrastructure will only rise if Congress delays, as $1 in maintenance on average saves about $16 worth of repairs. In addition to being the lifeline for many agriculture shippers, the U.S. steel industry and booming domestic energy sector also depend on inland waterways, said Janet Kavinoky, executive director for transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“Ninety-four percent of the locks on the Mississippi River are 50 years old or more,” she said. “It is not uncommon for a tow to sit two or three days waiting to get through some of the locks, and such a delay imposes significant additional costs.”
Port authorities are on track to spend about $18 billion on infrastructure through 2016, and the private sector will kick in about $27.6 billion, bringing the total to nearly $46 billion, according to a recent ASCE report. But even more money is needed to allow the East Coast ports to handle the large ships able to pass through the expanded Panama Canal, and cope with inland waterway volume growth.
To prepare for this growth, the nation needs to spend about $30 billion more by 2030 and another $62 billion by 2040. That translates to a funding gap of nearly $46 billion if current investment plans continue, according to the study. If the investments aren’t made, the U.S. will lose out in roughly $270 billion worth of exports by 2020 and nearly $2 trillion in exports by 2040, according to the report.
With an earmark ban in place, the biggest challenge likely facing Congress in passing a WRDA is determining which projects should be authorized. Boxer, who chairs the EPW committee, said there would need to be a creation of new standards to judge projects’ worth. Port funding is granted separately through the annual appropriations process.
Boxer emphasized the Senate would take a bipartisan approach to WRDA like it did with the recent surface transportation bill, and prepared comments from Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking committee member, reflect this attitude.
“As a fiscal conservative, I strongly support the overall goal of cutting government spending; however, I firmly believe that the two areas worthy of spending taxpayer dollars are defense and infrastructure,” according to the Inhofe statement.
Boxer said she aimed to begin a mark-up of the legislation during the lame duck session following the Nov. 6 elections. While the Senate faces a narrow deadline for passage before the November elections, there are few signs that the House will take up its version of the bill by the end of the year. Although Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., second-in-command on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, signaled his intent to begin work on a bill, the committee has been more focused on reforming Amtrak.