WASHINGTON — Sen. David Vitter, R-La., helped lead a congressional hearing Thursday to insist on more federal funding for port and river dredging projects in Louisiana and nationwide.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s hearing on “The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and the Need to Invest in the Nation’s Ports” focused on the need to keep the White House and Congress from raiding the trust fund every year for unrelated projects.
The hearing, which Vitter requested, was his first as the ranking Republican member and demonstrated how he and committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., will often work in a bipartisan fashion on infrastructure projects, even though they will frequently butt heads on environmental issues.
The two ideological opposites were friendly with each other and united throughout the hearing.
“Our ports and waterways are grossly underfunded for routine operation and maintenance and one big reason is the misallocation of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund revenues,” Vitter said, noting that Louisiana has five of the nation’s 15 busiest ports.
Boxer said that by 2040, if nothing changes, the nation’s ports will have a $28 billion shortfall in waterway dredging needs. The end effect is a significant slowdown in the nation’s economic development and imports and exports, all of which leads to increased gas and grain prices and more.
She complained that $1.8 billion was originally allocated for the fund last year but that the Obama administration only requested $848 million, leaving the rest to be raided for unrelated purposes.
Given the surplus, Vitter said the fund should have about $8 billion sitting in it now.
“It’s really worse than that,” Vitter said. “That money isn’t sitting anywhere. There’s no pile of cash. That money is gone. What it really means is that money is stolen and spent on completely unrelated purposes.”
Vitter said that, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers own estimates, adequate waterway depths are available for navigation only 35 percent of the time.
Vitter and Boxer are planning on putting a measure into the 2013 Water Resources Development Act bill, which is expected to be filed in a few weeks, that would keep the trust fund from being raided and also add a provision that would allow excess funds to go straight to port authorities for some specified projects.
Such a measure is expected to resemble the RAMP Act legislation by Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, which would keep lawmakers and the White House from reallocating from the fund.
A version of the RAMP Act became law last year but it was gutted behind closed doors by Congress with much weaker language that indicated funds from the $8 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 significant.
Even though President Barack Obama is using only half of what is put in the trust fund, he is still requesting more than any other president has since the fund was started in 1986, said Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army’s civil works division. She argued the requests are reasonable considering the need for “fiscal restraints” nationwide.
“The president is doing more than any other president. There’s no doubt,” Boxer said. “But we’re in a bad situation here.”
Michael Lorino, president of the Associated Branch Pilots in New Orleans, said navigational waterway shipping is nearing a crisis. But he expressed optimism that Congress is beginning to focus on the issue more.
“I can see this process has grown legs and is moving forward,” Lorino said.
Because of a lack of dredging in the Lower Mississippi River, Lorino said, last year navigational widths were decreased from 750 feet to only 100 feet at times.
“We had to have one-way traffic,” he said, arguing that such issues risk huge economic and environmental problems.
Lower Mississippi ports are underfunded by $50 million a year, Lorino said, noting that the White House wants to double nationwide exports.
“How can we double exports when we can’t move what we have today?” he said. “It’s impossible.”