ASCE Supports Fuller Use of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund

February 21, 2013

In testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on January 31, Andrew H. Cairns, P.E., M.ASCE, a member of the Governing Board of the Coasts, Oceans, Ports, and Rivers Institute, said that if the nation’s ports are to remain competitive globally, full use will have to be made of the monies in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF). Ship channels and harbors will have to be widened and deepened, he explained, to accommodate larger cargo ships so that marine cargo can be moved more efficiently.

“Unless America’s infrastructure investment gaps are filled, transporting goods will become costlier, prices will rise, and the United States will become less competitive in the global market,” said Cairns in a prepared statement before the committee. As a result, employment, personal income, and gross domestic product (GDP) will all fall.

“In the 2013 report card, due out March 19, ASCE will once again grade the nation’s inland waterways and will also, for the first time, grade the nation’s marine and inland waterway ports. With the current levels of investment, it is not likely that either category will receive top marks. Deferring water resource projects creates costs that reverberate throughout our economy, causing exports and GDP to fall, threatening U.S. jobs, causing a drop in personal income, and putting vessel operators at increased risk. Fixing the funding shortfalls out of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund will be a critical element to a final WRDA [Water Resources Development Act] package.”

Held at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, the hearing examined the role of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund in supporting commerce at our nation’s ports. This fund is the primary source for federal expenditures to maintain America’s ports, and it depends on fees levied on cargo entering the country through coastal and Great Lakes ports.

“According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, if funding continues at current levels, by 2040 the U.S. will face a shortfall of nearly $28 billion to meet the dredging needs of the nation’s ports,” said Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), the chair of the committee, in her opening remarks. “Continued maintenance of port facilities is critical for the commerce and jobs that rely on these economic hubs, and that is why we must increase investment from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. Currently, the trust fund collects more revenues than are annually spent for maintaining ports.

“In fact, in FY [fiscal year] 2013 the Obama administration estimated that the trust fund would receive $1.8 billion, but the Corps of Engineers budget request was only $848 million. This leaves a growing surplus at a time when many of the nation’s ports are not maintained to their authorized depths and widths. Significant challenges remain in working to ensure that revenues collected in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund are fully expended, including identification of necessary offsets. I look forward to collaborating with all of my [Senate] colleagues as we look for creative solutions to this challenging issue.”

The Committee on Environment and Public Works is responsible for matters related to the environment and infrastructure. The WRDA, which has been enacted 10 times since 1974, authorizes studies and projects and sets policy for addressing the nation’s water resources challenges. Its most recent enactment was in November 2007, and Boxer expressed hope that a new bill that would use more funds from the HMTF for dredging would be passed by Congress later this year.

“In the coming weeks, I intend to move forward with a bipartisan Water Resources Development Act,” said Boxer. “Senator [David] Vitter [R-Louisiana, the committee’s ranking minority member] and I look forward to working with our colleagues on both sides of the aisle to advance a bill, and we are optimistic that we can repeat last year’s success on MAP-21 [Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act].

“I have proposed a provision for the next WRDA bill that would increase equity for ports nationwide. The provision would allow certain ports to use harbor maintenance funds for limited additional uses after other traditional operation and maintenance needs are met. This would be an important step forward in ensuring our nation’s most essential ports receive an equitable share of harbor maintenance revenues.”

In his testimony, Cairns highlighted the economic ramifications of underinvesting in our nation’s ports and inland waterways:

“The United States has 300 commercial ports, 12,000 miles of inland and intracoastal waterways, and about 240 lock chambers, which carry more than 70 percent of U.S. imports by tonnage and just over half of our imports by value,” said Cairns, who works in the New York City office of AECOM and specializes in port and marine projects in the northeastern part of the country. “To remain competitive on a global scale, U.S. marine ports and inland waterways will require investment in the coming decades beyond the $14.4 billion currently expected.

“The nation’s marine ports and inland waterways have historically been the critical links that make international commerce possible. However, with the scheduled expansion of the Panama Canal by 2015, the average size of container ships is likely to increase significantly, affecting the operations of those major U.S. ports that handle containerized cargo. Currently, many of those U.S. ports will still require significant infrastructure upgrades to handle the larger ships and therefore remain competitive. The needed investment in marine ports will include harbor and channel dredging, while inland waterways will require new or rehabilitated lock and dam facilities.”

Cairns told the committee that, without dredging, many port facilities and navigation channels will be unsafe and unnavigable in less than a year, forcing ships to carry only a fraction of their intended loads or making it impossible for them to enter certain channels.

“Dredging of the nation’s ports and harbors has suffered from years of underinvestment,” he told the committee members. “More specifically, the busiest U.S. harbors are currently drastically undermaintained. The Corps of Engineers estimates that full channel dimensions at the nation’s busiest 59 ports are available less than 35 percent of the time. Additionally, 47 percent of all locks maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were classified as functionally obsolete in 2006. Assuming that no new locks are built within the next 20 years, by 2020 another 93 existing locks will be obsolete, rendering more than 8 out of every 10 locks now in service outdated.

“The current situation can increase the cost of shipping as vessels carry less cargo in order to reduce their draft or wait for high tide before transiting a harbor. It could also increase the risk of ships grounding or of a collision.

“Fixing the funding shortfalls out of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund will be a critical element to a final WRDA package. ASCE looks forward to working with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee as you move forward on this legislation.”

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