WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., on Thursday said she wants a more “equitable” use of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund dollars within a long-delayed bill key to authorizing port and inland waterway project.
The push to help some U.S. ports, particularly those on the West Coast, gain more of the dollars their importers pay via a 0.125 percent tax on the value of their cargo was highlighted during the hearing on the Water Resources Development Act. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, for example, generate 28 percent of the total HMT revenue but only get back about 6 percent.
The American Association of Port Authorities supports “more equity for HMT donors," a major addition to the association's push, considering many of its member authorities prefer the system as is. The AAPA, however, didn't disclose how the HMT program could be made more equitable in its written testimony to the Environment and Public Works Committee on Thursday.
One way to make HMT payout more equitable would be to allow ports that have already met their dredging needs to use the funding for other purposes, said Boxer, chair of the E&PW committee. “It gives a little flexibility to the program,” she said.
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., urged the committee to take “a balanced approach” when creating a more equitable way of allocating HMT to ports because a rigid approach “would abandon Arkansas,” which gets a very small amount from the tax.
Reworking the system to give some ports a larger share of the HMT dollars they contribute could also provide some political momentum to the larger issue facing the trust fund. About half of the money headed for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is diverted to fill other budget holes, despite that ports will face a $28 billion shortfall by 2040, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“This has gone on in every administration,” Boxer said. “They don’t spend the money in the trust fund as it's meant to be spent. “
The Obama administration has allocated more money out of the HMTF for dredging projects than in the past, but still only half of the collected taxes go back to the ports. The Obama administration budgeted $895 million in fiscal 2013 for port dredging, a $90 million increase from the prior year. Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, who commands the Corps of Engineers, told the Senate committee that the level of spending is “appropriate given the fiscal atmosphere.”
But before all the HMT dollars can be sent to ports, the budget holes the funding has been used to fill have to be partially or fully plugged. That means the U.S. needs to fill the budget holes or cut spending elsewhere.
Instead of just strongly encouraging appropriators to not divert HMT dollars, as Congress did in the recent surface transportation bill, the body could require HMT dollars to go directly into the Army Corps budget. That would prevent the administration from only budgetinga half of the tax collected for port projects. In order to permanently fix the problem, Congress likely needs to require a financial score that would estimate how much using all HMT dollars on ports would cost over 10 years.