Opinion: Ports in Need of Upkeep Dollars

Congress has failed to allocate enough funds to maintain ports and harbors. 

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In 1986 Congress established the Harbor Maintenance Tax, a user fee for coastal ports and harbors. The tax is levied on the value of imported goods, and the money collected in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is designated to fund the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ maintenance of deep draft and coastal waterways throughout the U.S., such as dredging navigable channels and repairing jetties.

However, since 2003 Congress has failed to fully expend the fund as intended. Tax collections have far exceeded appropriations.

Rather than being used for their intended purpose, tax revenues have been used to help balance the federal budget, and the surplus of collections over expenditures has grown to more than $9 billion. This has deprived waterways of needed maintenance, which impacts the competitiveness of U.S. goods and endangers the safety of mariners.

A broad range of Oregon ports relies on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ coastal operations and maintenance program. We have export gateways like the Lower Columbia and Willamette rivers, from which the Port of Portland and its neighbors ship more than half the nation’s wheat to overseas consumers.

We also have our smaller coastal ports, the commercial and recreational fishing hubs that are often the anchor businesses and economic drivers for their local communities and the region.

For example, Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund dollars maintain gateways such as the Port of Bandon, which attracts about 300 vessels per year for commercial and sport fishing and crabbing, and contributes $62 million to the local economy.

The Oregon International Port of Coos Bay handles more than 1.5 million tons of cargo and 10,000 tons of seafood annually, and connects to manufacturing operations in Coos, Douglas and Lane counties. It too relies on the fund.

The Port of Siuslaw (Florence) — named No. 2 Best Harbor in the nation by US Harbors for its astounding natural beauty, excellent boating, fishing and crabbing, and vibrant riverside Historic Old Town district — also relies on the fund.

The navigability of these ports is not only of economic benefit to the region; in some cases, it can literally be a matter of life or death.

When the weather turns foul, our region’s commercial fishing boats seek shelter in the nearest available harbors.

U.S. Coast Guard personnel use these same Oregon Coast navigation channels to mount search-and-rescue operations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific fleet, based in Newport, collects critical ocean data to protect marine mammals, manage commercial fish stocks and keep mariners safe.

These critical operations would be negatively impacted were it not for the continued maintenance of our coastal harbors and jetties.

The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association and our legislative and agency partners have been part of a collaborative effort to develop a comprehensive fix for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.

This includes working to fully spend annual collections, addressing the equity concerns of larger ports that often have higher import volumes but much lower maintenance requirements, and ensuring funding to small ports with low imports but large economic benefits to their communities.

Significant Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund reforms were included in Congress’ Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 and 2016, including a phased-in approach to reach full fund spending by fiscal year 2025, a 10% set-aside for small ports and authorization of $50 million for larger ports with competitiveness concerns.

But there is more work to be done to truly fix how annual Harbor Maintenance Tax revenues are distributed. One of our key partners has been Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon’s 4th Congressional District.

As chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, DeFazio has elevated the urgency of harbor-maintenance funding reform and highlighted the return on investment from maintaining our ports.

On Oct. 28, 2019, the House passed DeFazio’s HR 2440, the Full Utilization of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Act, which guarantees sustained funding for the small ports and harbors that are the lifeblood of coastal economies.

The bipartisan bill ensures that Harbor Maintenance Tax funds are allocated for their intended purpose: maintaining rivers and harbors. If the Senate also passes and the president approves this legislation, approximately $34 billion will be available over the next decade to help the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintain all federal harbors to their constructed widths and depths, keeping Oregon’s ports open for business.

The ports in our region truly are the drivers for our economy, and these efforts to fix the fund will help ensure efficient, reliable and safe navigation on our coastal waterways.

We encourage all Oregon businesses that rely upon and care about the health and future of our state’s waterborne commerce to voice their support for the passage of HR 2440 in the Senate. Let’s unlock the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and ensure Oregon’s ports are strong and safe for years to come.

Kristin Meira is executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, a nonprofit trade association of ports, grain growers, terminals, pilots, utilities, irrigators and union labor.

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