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  • OTRI.USA
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  • OTVI.USA
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  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
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American Shipper

Senators urge colleagues to meet WRRDA funding cap for harbor dredging

Industry continues to press Congress to apply more proceeds from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for its intended purpose.

   The American Association of Port Authorities on Monday picked up support in the Senate for appropriating the full amount for maintenance dredging as spelled out in the Water Resources Reform & Development Act enacted earlier this year. Twenty-two senators signed a “Dear Colleague” letter to the leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee supporting full funding of authorized amounts in WRRDA.
   A similar letter drafted by the AAPA, previously signed by 58 House members, urged House appropriators to work with the Senate on a final appropriations bill that meets the WRRDA spending targets for maintaining the depths and widths of navigation channels at the nation’s ports so that large vessels can operate without restriction.
   The letters are part of a “Hit the HMT Target!” campaign organized by the AAPA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
   More than 400 business groups and companies who depend on ports to move their cargo have also signed letters to appropriations committees in both chambers urging them to meet the funding commitments.
   The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund in the last fiscal year received about $1.8 billion in revenues from a tax based on the cargo value of imports and coastal shipments, as well as on cruise passengers, but Congress only appropriated less than $900 million of the amount for channel maintenance. Congress, for many years, has only allowed half the annual receipts to be used for their intended purpose, with the rest of the money used to mask the size of the federal budget deficit. Over time, the HMTF has built up a surplus of more than $8 billion.
   That money is unlikely to be returned to the HMTF, but WRRDA created a path to achieve full utilization of annual receipts by 2025. 
   Under the legislation, which passed both chambers by overwhelming margins, 67 percent of the $1.79 billion collected in fiscal year 2014 is authorized to be spent on harbor maintenance. 
   The goal is for Congress to direct $1.17 billion in the fiscal year 2015 Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (E&W) to the Army Corps of Engineers for dredging. 
   In July, the House passed an E&W appropriations bill that included the required funding amount, but a Senate appropriations subcommittee report proposes to appropriate $1.075 billion toward maintenance dredging, or about $100 million less than the target.
   The Senate has not yet voted on its version of the E&W bill.
   Congress is expected to pass an omnibus appropriations bill for the remainder of the fiscal year, but political differences between the parties and the White House over immigration and other issues could lead to brinksmanship again over funding government operations. Appropriations for the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies would be rolled up in any omnibus bill that passes.
   “We believe these letters demonstrate overwhelming support by organizations and individuals across the nation, as well as from many members of Congress, to meet the funding levels and provisions Congress approved in WRRDA last May,” AAPA President Kurt Nagle said in a statement. “WRRDA established a new distribution approach to address increased Harbor Maintenance Tax-related funds, including more equity for donor ports, emerging harbors, under-served and Great Lakes ports. It’s now important that appropriators provide the HMT funding set forth in WRRDA 2014.”
   He added, “Although ships continue to get bigger, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that constructed channel depths and widths at 59 of America’s busiest ports are only available about half the time. This increases costs to consumers and greatly reduces the ability of our ports to be internationally competitive.”
   Under the new distribution formula in WRRDA, 10 percent of appropriations at the fiscal year 2012 baseline of $898 million are set aside for smaller, emerging ports.
   The extra $300 million above the baseline would be allocated differently, too: High and moderate-use harbors would get 90 percent of the money, and 10 percent would go to smaller harbors. Within that 10 percent, there are carve-outs for expanded uses of funds beyond dredging for donor ports, Great Lakes harbors and under-served harbors.
   Donor ports are ones that typically don’t require much maintenance dredging because they are naturally deep or aren’t on rivers where silt flows. Under WRRDA, donors are eligible to get money to dredge berths or make other improvements if the port brings in $15 million in HMT revenue and receives less than 25 percent in return.

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