The U.S. port and inland waterway industry is celebrating that a major port and inland waterway bill is headed to the House floor for a vote next month after being passed by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
But amendments pushing more aggressive Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund reform, changes in the use of the harbor maintenance tax and the inclusion of projects yet to be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers fell short. All is not lost for backers, as those amendments could be attached to the final House bill or find their way into the final version, following the conference between the House and the Senate. The Senate passed its version, known as the Water Resources Development Act, in May.
Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., proposed an amendment to the bill that would require all trust fund revenue to be given back to the ports, but she had to withdraw the amendment because of a lack of support. The House bill would return to ports at least 80 percent of collected taxes — the 0.125 percent levy on the value of imported cargo — by fiscal 2020. The Senate version would require all collected taxes to go toward ports. Roughly 65 percent of the $1.8 billion in estimated taxes is set to go to ports for dredging and jetty maintenance in fiscal 2014, with the rest being used to plug general budget holes.
House T&I Committee Chair Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said he agreed with the sentiment of full use of the harbor maintenance tax, but there wasn’t enough money available for full reform. Hahn was also forced to withdraw an amendment seeking to increase the amount of trust fund dollars that could be used for “expanded uses” at the ports. Shuster said the amendment to increase the share of the harbor maintenance tax for other uses from 5 percent to 10 percent would hurt other ports.
Hahn argued that that although the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, both of which she represents, collect 28 percent of the total trust fund revenue, they only get back 6 percent. The Senate version takes a more aggressive approach to creating a more “equitable” use of HMT dollar. Though the bill, if there is enough money to pay for all ports’ maintenance dredging and jetty maintenance needs, ports in select states could get money for adjacent berthing and contaminated sediment. The amount of money available to ports in select states — California, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, Maryland, Washington and Texas — is limited to whichever is lower: 40 percent of the excess dollars or 20 percent of the ports’ total operations and maintenance budget
Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., was also forced to remove an amendment seeking more “equitable” use of HMT dollars because of a lack of support from her colleagues. Her amendment would have required states to get back at least 30 percent of the HMT they collect.
Rep. Corrine Brown pushed an amendment that would have allowed projects to receive congressional authorization if the Corps gave its blessing within a year of the enactment of the bill. But the Democratic Floridian withdrew the amendment after Shuster said such a move would equate to the rubber-stamping of Obama administration project picks. Shuster has stressed he will push for the passage of port and inland waterway authorization legislation every two year, instead of the roughly six years that is the case for this bill. But Brown said the Jacksonville and Everglades can’t wait another two years.
Both ports are working to deepen their channel so they can handle heavily loaded post-Panamax container ships. TraPac, an operator of an Asian container terminal in Jacksonville, said it will leave the port if the project to deepen the channel to 47 feet isn’t authorized in this latest bill, the Jacksonville Business Journal reported.