Ports pumped about potential gas tax hike

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – Port and shipping industry leaders gathered here this week cheered the possibility of an increase in the federal gas tax, even though the money that is collected from drivers is normally used to pay for road and transit projects. 

The shipping groups, gathered for a media tour of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles sponsored by the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), said a gas tax increase would help the U.S. shipping industry as much as it boosts roads and transit because goods that come into the nation’s ports are moved from ships to trains and trucks.

“There’s a lot of joint partnering and advocacy to make sure that Congress recognizes that the status quo, the minimal reauthorizations … low levels of funding is not going to keep us competitive as a nation,” AAPA President Kurt Nagle said.

“Many [infrastructure funding issues] are beyond sometimes even the jurisdiction of the local port authority and really have broader national transportation policy, national freight policy aspects,” Nagle continued, referencing landside cargo connections like truck and railways. 

{mosads}Lawmakers approved an $12.3 billion bill to boost port and water infrastructure last year. The measure included a long-sought provision to ensure money collected by the harbor maintenance tax that is paid by shipping companies that had been going to other areas of the federal budget be directed to port improvements. 

Shipping companies are required to pay a fee equivalent to 0.125 percent of the value of their cargo in order to access U.S. ports, but there was no guarantee the money would be use for dock improvements until recently. 

Under the 2014 legislation, lawmakers will have to ensure that all harbor maintenance fees that are collected are used for port improvements by 2025.  

Nagle said Wednesday that more money is needed to improve rail and truck connections for goods once they are moved off the docks, despite the recently approved water funding bill and the harbor maintenance fee victory. 

“We think there’s got to be dedicated funding for freight in this next [surface transportation] reauthorization, so that there is a specific programs, policy and funding for freight projects,” he said. “But that’s broader than just port issues, so I think part of the discussion is how is the overall freight policy, and our freight needs as a nation, including the connections … in and around our ports, going to be adequately invested in and funded and that’s broader than anything that can be reasonably tied to the harbor maintenance tax.” 

Lawmakers have expressed a new openness since the beginning of the year to increasing the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax because fuel prices have declined to their lowest levels in about five years.  

The gas tax money is used to fill the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund, which has teetered on the edge of bankruptcy in recent years as lawmakers have struggled to come up with a way to close a shortfall that is estimated to be about $16 billion per year. 

The federal government typically spends about $50 billion on transportation, but the gas tax, which has not been increased since 1993, brings in only about $34 billion. 

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget, like the Harbor Maintenance revenue, to close the gap. 

The port and shipping groups said they cannot rely only on the harbor maintenance money, even though it is intended to be a user fee for shipping companies that is similar to the gas tax for drivers. 

“What we see what the Harbor Maintenance Tax is that it’s not coming back to us for it’s intended use,” said Port of Hueneme, Calif., CEO Kristin Decas, who is also the port association group’s chairwoman.  

“As a mechanism, HMT is not equitable,” Port of Los Angeles Deputy Executive Director Michael Christensen added. “That money goes into the [federal] Treasury and getting it out of the Treasury proven to be a monumental effort.”  

The discussion about using money from a potential gas tax increase to boost ports came amid labor unrest at docks like Long Beach and Los Angeles that has threatened to stall shipping along the West Coast. 

There was not much discussion about the labor issues during among the port leaders Wednesday, but the groups expressed optimism a recently appointed federal mediator would be able to improve negotiations. 

The groups are scheduled to tour the Los Angeles port on Thursday.  

Tags Gas Tax Highway bill Highway Trust Fund Kurt Nagle Port of Long Beach Port of Los Angeles water bill

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