The nation’s ports got a little love in the recently passed CARES Act, the colossal stimulus package that provides COVID-19 relief. In this legislation is a long-time ASCE priority: a provision that would unlock the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) and help ports that need dredging work. ASCE strongly advocated for the bipartisan Full Utilization of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Act (H.R. 2440) – on which this provision is based – since H.R. 2440’s introduction last spring.
In 1986, Congress enacted the Harbor Maintenance Tax to recover the operation and maintenance dredging costs for federally authorized ports. It’s a fee of 0.125% of the value of cargo that is paid by users of the system. These fees are then deposited into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which Congress uses to fund harbor maintenance dredging.
Unfortunately, Congress has not been using all of these funds for its intended purpose of dredging. $9.3 billion of the trust fund sit unused – or the funds are used for general deficit offsets. Meanwhile, our nation’s ports struggle to meet dredging needs, and the ASCE 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gave our nation’s ports a grade of “C+.”
This provision in the CARES Act will not allow for Congress to retroactively spend from the fund’s current $9.3 billion balance, however, and applies only to “annual receipts and interests,” meaning it will ensure that all future HMTF revenues – an expected $24.5 billion over the next decade – are used for their intended purposes of dredging at our nation’s ports and harbors.
Last year, the House passed H.R. 2440 by a vote of 296 – 109. This win would not have been possible without the incredible advocacy of ASCE’s members, which included over 160 emails to over 123 congressional offices!
While you may not live near an inland or coastal port or harbor, ensuring full expenditure of the HMTF affects all Americans. Our nation’s 926 ports support over 23.1 million jobs, provide $321.1 billion in tax revenue to federal, state, and local governments, and are responsible for $4.6 trillion in economic activity, or roughly 26 percent of the nation’s economy – making them essential to U.S. competitiveness. Our ports serve as the gateway through which 99 percent of America’s overseas trade passes. In addition, the top 10 U.S. ports accounted for 78 percent of U.S. foreign waterborne trade in 2015.
However, in a 2015 survey of ports, one-third indicated that congestion over the past ten years resulted in a 25 percent decrease in port productivity. Delays at our nation’s harbors and inland waterways have serious economic impacts, affecting farmers’ and businesses’ ability to get their crops and goods moved to the market, resulting in increased costs to consumers. Every American consumer pays for these delays. ASCE’s 2016 Failure to Act economic study found that poor infrastructure costs each American family $3,400 a year, which is $9 a day, in personal disposable income.
ASCE is pleased that the CARES Act includes provisions that will ensure increased infrastructure investment at our nation’s ports and harbors. Unlocking the HMTF is a big jump in the right direction to help close the expected $1.5 billion investment gap at our nation’s inland waterways and ports and takes us one step closer to raising the nation’s “C+” ports grade and “D” inland waterways grade.