Time To Dredge Nation’s Waterways

Vigorous economic growth in the United States is essential for a full recovery of the global economy. Implementation of an aggressive, export-oriented trade policy is imperative to achieve the necessary growth to reverse the high level of unemployment here in the U.S. and to restore American competitiveness.

President Obama‘s laudable goal of doubling exports over the next five years will require implementation of the three pending free trade agreements (Columbia, Panama and South Korea) coupled with further efforts to open additional markets for American exporters. But more is needed.

American ports account for 99 percent of our overseas trade. Every day, $3.8 billion worth of goods enter and depart from U.S. ports. With roughly 15,000 jobs created for each $1 billion in exports, the economic impact cannot be denied.

In addition to aggressively pursuing open markets through trade negotiations, careful consideration must be given to ensure our ports are able to operate at their full potential.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintenance dredging of America’s federally maintained waterways. The Corps estimates that full channel dimensions of depth and width at the 59 seaports and major U.S. ports are available less than 35 percent of the time. Ships must light-load cargo in order to reduce their draft or work on restricted schedules based on tides. These inefficiencies lead to higher shipping costs, damaging America’s competitiveness. If export goals are to be reached, there is no question that dredging domestic waterways to their operational potential is a requirement.

Operation and maintenance dredging is funded by a dedicated tax and is deposited into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF). The tax raises $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion per year, and the trust fund currently has a surplus of $5.7 billion. Congress created this dedicated funding for the purpose of dredging, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has access to only about half of the incoming revenue each year and this funding has been tied up in earmarks. In FY ’10 alone, the HMTF collected more than $1.36 billion with interest, while only $793 million was transferred to the Corps for actual harbor maintenance. The dredging of our important waterways has been deferred and delayed.

This situation is creating real problems for shippers and ports along our coasts. In the past few weeks, the situation in the Mississippi River became so dire, restrictions were placed on ships entering and leaving the delta. Whereas Congress has authorized a 45-foot channel depth for the river, the Associated Branch Pilots began limiting the draft of ships to no more than 44 feet. The Corps has expressed the immediate need to dredge, as each one-foot reduction in draft results in a loss of $250,000 to $800,000 per ship.

As a remedy to this problem, I have proposed the Realize America’s Maritime Promise (RAMP) Act, HR 104. The bill aims to free up the incoming revenue generated by the harbor maintenance tax each year and allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge these waterways to their fully authorized dimensions.

The Congressional Budget Office has confirmed this legislation adds nothing to the deficit and merely allows use of this revenue as Congress originally intended. According to the Corps, the incoming revenue is sufficient to meet these needs and critical funds would not have to be shifted to deal with any emergency dredging. This legislation already has nationwide bipartisan support, and I am working with my colleagues to ensure its timely passage. With so much uncertainty in our economy, the RAMP Act will guarantee that jobs and businesses along the Gulf Coast remain.

Realizing America’s maritime promise is a key component of our economy, and prompt passage of HR 104 will ensure that America’s seaports are ready to meet the goal of doubling exports in five years.

Boustany, a Republican, represents Louisiana’s 7th congressional district. This piece originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

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