A top Corps of Engineers official said spending more from the Harbor Maintenance Tax Fund without a corresponding increase in the agency’s total budget would require the corps to divert money funding from other projects.
Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, responded to questions from Rep. Timothy Bishop, D-N.Y., at a House subcommittee hearing on the corps’ proposed $4.726 billion budget for the 2014 fiscal year.
Ports and shipping interests have complained for years that the HMT annually collects hundreds of millions of dollars more in per-ton cargo fees each year than the corps is allowed to spend on navigation projects.
The FY2014 budget request would use only $834 million of the expected $1.85 billion in HMT collections next year. That’s approximately in line with corps budgets of recent years. The HMT surplus is expected to reach nearly $9 billion next year.
Industry forces are lobbying to attach the RAMP (Realize America’s Maritime Promise) Act, which would require all HMT collections to be spent each year, to the Water Resources Development Act reauthorization.
Bishop said the RAMP wouldn’t solve the waterway funding problem, because the increased spending from the HMT fund would still have to fit within the corps’ proposed $4.7 billion budget.
He asked Darcy, “If we were to pass the RAMP Act, that doesn’t give you $868 million more to spend unless we increase the overall budget of the corps. Is that correct?”
“Yes, congressman,” Darcy replied.
Darcy agreed that unless the corps’ overall budget is increased, higher spending from the HMT fund for waterway maintenance would have to be offset by cuts elsewhere, and that construction funding would likely suffer.
“We’re proposing a solution that not only doesn’t solve the problem, it exacerbates the problem. Am I right about that?” Bishop asked.
“Yes,” Darcy said.
“All of these ‘solutions’ — and I’ll put the word in quotes — are simply pushing around the problem unless we increase the total amount of funding that’s available, and that’s our job … We can’t keep going to the corps and say, ‘Do more with less,’ ” Bishop said.
Darcy and Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, the corps’ chief of engineers, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee that the corps budget concentrates on high-priority navigation, environmental and flood control work.
Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, the subcommittee chairman, said the HMT fund must be spent on navigation projects instead of being tapped for other purposes. He said the administration’s corps budget “overpromises and underdelivers.”
“This administration is not the first to shortchange America’s waterway transportation system, but I find it irresponsible for any administration, or for Congress itself, to not fully spend tax dollars for their intended purposes,” Gibbs said.
He suggested the corps put less-urgent environmental projects on the back burner, and concentrate on navigation projects to bolster the economy.
“Savings can be found by slowing down work on some environmental restoration projects until the economy turns around,” Gibbs said. “Instead, the president’s budget prioritizes these items above navigation.”
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, agreed that navigation projects should take priority, and that HMT revenue should be used for navigation projects.
He noted that Brazil is spending heavily on infrastructure that will narrow the transportation advantage that U.S. soybean producers now enjoy in international markets. If the U.S. doesn’t invest in its waterways, “we’re going to lose that advantage,” he said.
Shuster has said the House plans to unveil its version of a Water Resources Development Act in the next few weeks. “I’m dedicated to passing a WRDA bill that I think is extremely important to the economy of the United States,” he said.