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Container ports singled out in federal spending bill

Photo Credit: Georgia Ports Authority

The multibillion-dollar appropriations bill for fiscal 2019 signed into law by President Trump last week included first-time funding dedicated to port infrastructure, with the nation’s top 15 container ports receiving special treatment.

The spending bill, which funds seven cabinet departments through September 30 and thereby averted another government shutdown, provides nearly $300 million for coastal ports as part of a Port Infrastructure Grant Program, to be administered by the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD). It is considered the first such program dedicated specifically to seaports. Of that funding, $93 million is to be set aside specifically for funding improvements at the country’s top 15 container ports, ranked according to 2016 volume by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) has been a major advocate for dedicated port funding, versus grant money distributed as part of a larger surface transportation package. AAPA has identified $66 billion needed for port improvements over the next decade. “This funding is needed to ensure U.S. job creation, economic growth and tax fairness,” said AAPA president Kurt Nagle, adding that the MARAD funding program “is a good step forward toward meeting these needs.”

Nagle praised U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), who led negotiations for the funding package as chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies last year. Not coincidentally, three Florida ports – Jacksonville, Everglades (Fort Lauderdale) and Miami – all qualify for top-15 container port funding.

“Over the past year I heard from so many port authorities in Florida, and across the nation, on the need for a dedicated port funding pool,” Diaz-Balart told the Sunshine State News last week. “For the first time, the legislation delivers just that.”

The three ports, all of which handled record container volumes last year, have been deepening and widening their channels and purchasing larger gantry cranes to accommodate larger classes of container ships calling at U.S. East Coast ports, which has been driven in part by the building of a larger set of locks at the Panama Canal in 2015.

At the Port of Jacksonville, for example, trade from Asia grew 12 percent over fiscal 2017 (ending September 30). “The port continues to add new service and capacity and the federal project to deepen the Jacksonville shipping channel to 47 feet to accommodate even more cargo aboard the largest ships is now well underway,” the port said in a statement in October 2018.

The spending bill also includes $900 million for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grants for 2019, a competitive grant program that funds capital investments across all transportation modes.

While 40 percent less than the $1.5 billion in BUILD funds allocated for 2018, “it’s still significantly higher than what appropriators have typically given to the program,” Elaine Nessle, executive director of the Coalition for America’s Gateways & Trade Corridors, told FreightWaves. “Last year was a significant plus-up, which is why we’re seeing a little bit of decline.”

Through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program, freight and passenger rail projects, as well as multi-modal port access projects, are eligible for $255 million in grant funding as part of the spending package.

On the highway side, as part of funding set aside for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s operations and safety grant programs, the spending bill continued to extend electronic logging device exemptions for trucks hauling livestock and bees through the fiscal year ending September 30.

Not included in the package was an extension of the biodiesel tax credit, which provides incentives for trucking fuel retailers that lowers biodiesel fuel costs for drivers and their carriers. The credit could still be extended through other legislation.

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John Gallagher, Washington Correspondent

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.

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