On October 28, H.R. 2440, the Full Utilization of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Act, advanced in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation—the top legislative priority of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA)—would enable Congress to appropriate $34 billion over the next decade to restore America’s federal navigation channels to their originally constructed widths and depths, thereby improving their safety and reliability to handle today’s larger ships and growing trade.
Chris Connor, AAPA’s president and CEO, called the passage of H.R. 2440 a “critical first step to solve the problems with the Harbor Maintenance Tax. The legislation will stop the diversion of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund payments and provide a means for Congress to spend down the more than $9 billion that has been diverted in previous years.”
The bill now moves to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where it is expected to become part of the Water Resources and Development Act (WRDA) now being hammered out. Some observers worry that the Senate might not have enough time to craft a decent WRDA before election season concerns take over.
In the past, the HMTF has been diverted from its authorized and intended purpose, used instead to pay down the general deficit—or rather, to help obscure its size. Large donor ports that paid into the fund, such as Los Angeles, received back only a tiny fraction of what they contributed to it via taxes. Many ports have been paying for their own channel expansions to respond to the larger vessels made possible by the Panama and Suez canal expansions, and even for their regular channel maintenance. Similar issues used to plague the Inland Waterways Trust fund until recently. While IWTF surpluses weren’t actually moved, they were likely counted against the deficit.
This forced subsidizing by the ports (and inland waterways) of token “deficit reduction” maneuvers was never defensible. There is even less justification for it now, as the current budget deficit heads toward $1 trillion. As always during times of economic expansion, both parties seem to be relaxing about the deficit. There is even a tantalizing new economic theory floating around that the deficit is not necessarily the looming threat it has been assumed to be.
Whatever the case may be with that, we are glad that the trend seems to be moving toward full authorized use of both funds. Maybe they can finally stop being “deficit reduction” fig leaves and become devoted once and for all to their intended purposes: the full and effective maintenance of our navigation system.