When the federal transportation bill was signed into law last month, nearly all of the focus in Louisiana centered on the RESTORE Act that funnels BP oil spill money to the Gulf Coast states as well as the surprising decision to cut Medicaid funding for Louisiana in the bill.
One aspect of the law that was largely overlooked was the original intention to include the RAMP Act by U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, that dedicates more funds to river dredging and port projects in Louisiana and nationwide.
But the final bill signed into law instead included much-weaker language that indicated funds from the $7 billion Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund “should” only go to dredging and ports efforts. As is always the case in legislation, the difference between “should” and “shall” is incredibly significant.
Boustany said the leadership of the House Appropriations Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., insisted in behind-the-scenes negotiation on not using “shall” to allow for more fiscal leeway “rather than do what’s right for ports and rivers.”
“It basically subverted what the law really says,” Boustany said, arguing that “harbor maintenance” dollars should only go to related projects.
Still, Boustany said he is glad the new law requires the president to acknowledge the port and dredging funding gaps in future proposed budgets. “That was a very important step because it forces the administration to recognize the problem.”
So what is the extent of the problem?
Big River Coalition Executive Director Sean Duffy Sr. wants you to know that the depths of the Mississippi River affect you every time you shop at Wal-Mart or eat out at a restaurant.
With excess sediment taking away an extra two or three feet in Mississippi River depth in southern Louisiana, Duffy said, “It costs the shippers an average of $1 million a foot” because of draft restrictions, whether it is grain being exported or crude oil imported to the state’s refineries.
“Everything trickles down to the consumers,” Duffy said, arguing that extra shipping costs are passed down to consumers. “Everything is connected by the imports and exports,” he added, arguing that 31 of the 50 states connect to the global economy through the Mississippi River.
Louisiana’s 28 active ports indirectly employ more than 1.8 million people — 35,000 fewer than 10 years ago, according to a recent Ports Association of Louisiana-funded report.
But, in the face of dredging and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funding cutbacks, there are discussions of only funding the Lower Mississippi to be maintained at depths of as low as 38 feet, as opposed to the traditional 45 feet, according to a Big Rivers Coalition report. “If the controlling depth is reduced to 38 feet of draft, the nation and the world stand to lose 12.38 million tons of exports (12.4 percent of the total) and 5.87 million tons of imports (5.5 percent of the total),” the report states.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, is critical of Boustany though for taking credit for legislation that lacks “teeth.” Landry is, of course, running against Boustany for re-election because congressional redistricting placed them in the same district.
“Washington politicians tell the American people one thing and do something completely different,” Landry said, while complaining about the annual raiding of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.
“The trust fund is not broken,” he said. “Congress is broken.”
As for the actual funding, Duffy said a little more than $80 million is currently on the table for annual Mississippi River maintenance when the need is for at least $130 million. He said he is currently in the process of reaching out to the Louisiana congressional delegation to discuss what can be done next.
“We need to put some dentures into the bill with no teeth,” Duff said.
Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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