Use the Harbor Maintenance fund to maintain harbors

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act offers the opportunity to resolve an issue that has bedeviled U.S. ports and harbors for years: Congress’s annual theft of the dollars that are supposed to keep our ports fully dredged and open for business.

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Decades ago, Congress created a tax on the value of the goods imported through our ports to ensure no American port would suffer from a lack of dredging. Shippers pay about $1.7 billion each year to the “Harbor Maintenance Tax” to cover the cost of keeping the ports and harbors they rely on in good working order. 

Unfortunately, every year, Congress takes almost half of the money we collect at our ports, for our ports, and spends it on other things. And as a result, our ports are suffering. 

Seaports handle fully 95 percent of this nation’s overseas trade by volume, supporting more than 13 million jobs across the country and contributing more than $3 trillion in gross domestic product. But today, the full depths and widths of our harbors and channels are available less than 35 percent of the time, forcing ships to carry less than their full capacity of cargo or waste time waiting for high tide to enter a harbor.

Falling behind in dredging is not only an inconvenience. It costs the American economy billions of dollars every year.

In 2009, Congress raided the Harbor Maintenance Tax funds for more than $640 million, leaving barely more than half of what shippers paid to have fully dredged harbors. The next year, shallow harbors caused $7 billion in added costs to the goods we buy.

I do not think it is right to make American businesses and families pay for a tax and then pay again for our failure to use that tax as we’d promised.

The present Water Resources Reform and Development Act draft before the Transportation Committee pushes Congress much closer to using the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to actually maintain our harbors. In the draft, 80 percent of the trust fund would be dedicated to ports by 2020. But that’s not enough.

We need to do more. Our economy cannot afford six more years of not dredging our ports, six more years of groaning under billions of dollars of added costs. The Army Corps of Engineers says they could have all of our commercial deep draft harbors fully dredged in five years, if only we gave them the funds to do it. Our ports need 100 percent of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and they need it now.

Our seaports are more than just gateways to the world — they are at the heart of the commerce that powers the U.S. economy. When that heart is strong, American consumers and businesses from the coasts to the cornfields thrive. When that heart grows clogged, however, the health of the whole economy is put at risk.

It is time to give 100 percent to unclogging our ports.

Hahn has represented the 44th Congressional District of California since 2011. She sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure, and the Small Business committees.