WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

Inland Ports Neglected Once Again In Grant Program

On March 2, the Department of Transportation announced the funding availability of $225 million in discretionary grants for ports under the Port Infrastructure Development Program (PIDP).

It’s certainly good news that more funding opportunities are being given to ports. But unfortunately, this money comes with a number of restrictions and limitations that disadvantage inland ports almost to the point of exclusion from this program.

Some of the grant restrictions and limitations are reasonable. Eligible projects include port gate improvements, road and rail improvements within or connecting to the port, berth improvements, fixed landside improvements relating to cargo handling or added utilities.

No more than $22.5 million may be awarded for development phase activities that do not result in construction. The federal cost share is 80 percent for qualified projects, although the secretary of transportation can waive that for a project under $10 million.

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But other limitations make less sense. The FY2020 Appropriations Act directs that at least $200 million of the funds be reserved for grants to coastal seaports or Great Lakes ports. If the DOT does not receive “sufficient qualified applications,” it will award less than the amount available. Furthermore, $56.2 million of the total amount is reserved for projects requesting exactly $10 million in PIDP funds.

Taken together, these two restrictions funnel money to larger coastal ports at the expense of smaller inland ports, many of which also need help, but which are less likely to be applying for exactly $10 million projects.

Sounds like déjà vu all over again: the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019 provided more than $1 billion for various programs of the Maritime Administration, but only $7 million was designated for the Marine Highway Program.

The popularity and success of MarAd’s Small Shipyards grant program shows how effective even small grants can be for inland ports, but those amounts are drops in the bucket compared to the amounts made available to coastal ports.

MarAd administrator Mark Buzby has been a strong supporter of inland ports and the America’s Marine Highway Program, which just announced March 5 another $9.5 million in grants.

“Marine highways are an efficient and cost-effective option for moving freight and passengers in America,” said Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in announcing the grants.

“Our country has 12,000 miles of navigable inland waterways,” said Buzby. “By continuing to invest in them, we are investing in the continued success of our nation’s economy.”

Again, all this is welcome, but more is needed. The network of coastal and inland ports is a complete system. Both types of ports have their proper roles in the system, but those roles differ. It’s not fair for inland ports to have to compete for federal grant dollars against large coastal ports under the same criteria.

When making grant money for ports available, Congress should set aside money for inland ports in dedicated separate pots, so that inland ports can compete against each other, not coastal ports, using criteria appropriate for inland ports.