Editorial | Harbor Funds Should Go to Harbors

02/14/2013 4:11 PM

03/05/2013 10:02 AM

As much as pundits and politicians might like to say otherwise, there is almost nothing clear-cut or straightforward about our nation’s spending problems. Managing a nation of more than 300 million people with a federal budget now approaching $4 trillion a year is a monumental task of nuance, judgment calls and hard decisions.

But sometimes the intent of government budgeting seems so heart-breakingly simple that it’s just all the more frustrating when that intent is ignored.

Such is the case with the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The account, funded by fees paid by users of the channels, pays for dredging and maintaining the nation’s ports and harbors to keep commerce flowing efficiently and smoothly. At least that was the idea back in 1986, when the fund was created.

Now, however, the fund regularly spends less on maintenance than it has taken in. Over the last few years, the fund has collected around $1.4 billion a year, roughly comparable to the needs for annual maintenance, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. But only about $800 million per year has actually been spent on maintaining the nation’s ports. The rest? It’s gone to offset other federal spending.

Those who make their livings from ports that are silting up – such as the port of Georgetown – are understandably frustrated at this state of affairs – a “chronic underinvestment in channel maintenance,” as President Kurt Nagle of the American Association of Port Authorities put it in testimony to Congress last year.

The port of Georgetown’s dredging complaints are nothing new, with the port and its backers struggling to find innovative ways to utilize its port even as its channel grows steadily shallower. Despite this hurdle, tonnage at the port was up 17 percent in 2012, to more than 530,000 tons. It’s still short of the 1 million tons needed to become a high priority on the Army Corps list of projects, but it’s another step in the right direction. Dedicated more funding to harbor maintenance – not a new tax, but merely funding that is nominally collected for that purpose already – would be another positive step.

In the latest of a number of efforts to change the current practice of redirecting harbor funds, bills have been filed in the U.S. House and Senate to require that the fees collected for the harbor fund be used only for harbor maintenance. Sen. Lindsey Graham has signed on as a co-sponsor of the Senate version ( S. 218), and Rep. Tom Rice’s office said he’s asked to become a co-sponsor of the bill in the House ( H.R. 335). We appreciate both of their efforts to change this silly budgetary shell game.

Rice, who has been a supporter of Georgetown port dredging in the past, also met recently with Army Corps officials in Georgetown to discuss its needs and how he might be able to help, work that his constituents should appreciate.

If Congress can get its act together and pass this appropriations rule, it will not be a magic bullet for Georgetown. Because earmarks are no longer used, there will be no list of ports to be funded that Georgetown can be added to, ensuring the port is dredged. The port will still have to rely, as it does now, on moving up the priority list maintained by the Army Corps. But a fully funded Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund certainly gives it a better chance than a partially funded one.

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