Despite increasingly loud warnings from state governments and federal agencies, the nation’s shipping waterway infrastructure – which handles the bulk of the United States’ agricultural products -- continues to erode. A Wednesday morning (Feb. 1) hearing by the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight looked into the deteriorating situation.

“Our nation’s harbors are a life-blood of commerce,” said Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany, chairman of the subcommittee, in the hearing run-up. “Years of chronic underfunding have severely limited ship traffic, prevented valuable cargo from moving efficiently, and adversely affected national, regional, and local economies. Funds collected by the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) should be utilized promptly and exclusively to keep our harbors open for business.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uses HMTF funds to maintain harbors and dredge waterways. Those funds are collected from shippers through the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) that is based on the value of the goods being shipped through ports.

According to the subcommittee, the tax “was intended to provide a sufficient, stable, long-term source of funding to pay for harbor dredging to maintain authorized depths and widths. In recent years, HMTF expenditures have remained flat while HMT collections have increased with rising imports, creating a large surplus in the trust fund. The HMTF’s uncommitted balance continues to grow and reached an estimated $6.1 billion at the beginning of fiscal year 2012. In fiscal year 2010 alone, $1.2 billion in Harbor Maintenance Taxes were collected, while only $793 million was spent on dredging and related maintenance. Despite the accumulating balances in the HMTF, many U.S. harbors are under-maintained, resulting in the full channel dimensions of America’s busiest ports available less than 35 percent of the time. Reduced channel dimensions could increase both the cost of shipping and the risk of grounding or collision.” 

To ensure that HMTF appropriations and funds are linked, Boustany and Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney introduced the bipartisan HR 104, which would tie the shipping assessments to actual harbor and waterway maintenance. The Senate companion bill is S 104.

Following the hearing, Boustany said HR 104 “guarantees the Calcasieu River remains an avenue providing the rest of the world with south Louisiana products such as Crowley rice and St. Landry Parish soybeans. American exports cannot afford to lose competitiveness due to Congress’s inability to responsibly allocate dedicated funding.”

Among those who testified at the hearing about the need for proper river maintenance was Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain. Shortly after his testimony, Strain spoke with Delta Farm Press from Washington, D.C. Among his comments:

On the pending legislation…

“Less than 35 percent of nation’s 59 major ports are being adequately dredged. At issue here is the ability of America to move goods and products and put them into commerce.

“What happened is around 1986 a bill was passed that puts an assessment of $1.50 per $1,000 worth of cargo handled. That is supposed to pay for the dredging and maintenance of our harbors and waterways – inland, as well.

“That assessment generates about $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion every year. Historically, though, only $750 million, or less, has been spent on dredging and harbor maintenance. The rest is being utilized elsewhere.

“So, there’s a positive balance of over $6 billion in the trust fund” set up to handle the assessments.