By Brian Tumulty, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The Senate takes up a controversial water resources bill in the coming week that boosters say would prepare East Coast ports for deeper draft cargo ships when huge new locks open in the Panama Canal in 2015.
Budget watchdog groups are criticizing the measure for making significant new commitments of federal spending.
Much of the new commitment involves dredging, including a new federal responsibility for dredging berths next to piers and certain contaminated sediment that are currently the financial responsibility of municipal port authorities.
Overall, there's less cost sharing for dredging in favor of letting Uncle Sam pick up the tab.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., added a provision in committee that gives priority for dredging smaller harbors like Rochester and Oswego on Lake Ontario.
Congress also would require the Army Corps of Engineers to use all the money in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund each year.
The trust fund collects about $1.5 billion annually and has been running a surplus of about $700 million that helps to reduce the federal deficit, according to Steve Ellis of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The Army Corps sent the Senate a letter in mid-March saying that trust fund spending "should not be based on the level of receipts from the current tax.'' Instead, the Army Corps suggested basing the spending on "the economic and safety return of each potential investment.''
The trust fund gets its revenue from a tax on cargo that's imported or shipped domestically to another American port.
Cargo that is exported is not taxed because of a 1998 Supreme Court ruling, but the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund also collects some money - about 1 percent of its overall revenue - from cruise ships.
A coalition of maritime companies, port authorities and labor unions argues that the nation's harbors are inadequately maintained, threatening economic growth. Their coalition, called Realize America's Maritime Promise (RAMP), says the cost of imports and exports could be reduced if larger cargo ships were able to access American ports.
"There's maintenance dredging that always needed to be done,'' said Brian Pallasch, managing director of government relations for the American Society of Civil Engineers. "We're collecting money and not using it for its intended purpose. There are enough projects where you could use the full amount of money.''
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates the authorized channels at the nation's 59 busiest ports are not fully available about one-third of the time.
Part of the problem is that a significant amount of the harbor trust fund money has been spent in the past to maintain harbors and channels that handle little or no cargo. "The Oregon Inlet in North Carolina, Grays Harbor in Washington, Humboldt Harbor in California, and the Lake Washington Ship Canal in Seattle are some of the harbors or waterways that fit this description,'' the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said in a 2011 report. "Commercial fishermen and recreational boat (or yacht) owners account for most, if not all of the vessel traffic in these harbors.''
Fishermen and recreational boaters don't pay into the harbor trust fund.
Instead, the Congressional Research Service found that much of the harbor trust fund revenue is generated by the use of deep harbors that don't require much dredging. Los Angeles, Long Beach, Tacoma and Seattle generate "a substantial amount'' of trust fund revenue that is mostly spent on the maintenance of other ports, the report said.
Almost 20 percent of the trust fund money was spent in Louisiana between 1999 and 2008, with Texas ranking No. 2 and Florida No. 3.
The state of New York ranked No. 7.
Over that same 10-year period ending in 2008, the $56.9 million spent on New York harbor ranked behind 24 other projects, including the Cape Cod Canal.
Trust fund money is not used for increasing the depth or width of a channel, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. That work is funded out of the federal government's general treasury.
Other parts of the legislation also are controversial.
The Army Corps of Engineers would be prohibited from reducing the amount of money it spends compared to the previous year, which would exempt the agency from the cost-cutting in other parts of the federal budget.
Taxpayers for Common Sense is critical of a measure that would automatically extend for another 15 years all beach replenishment projects nearing the end of their 50-year authorization dating back to the early 1960s when global warming and rising sea levels weren't a factor in the approval process. Local governments would be responsible for only 35 percent of the cost instead of the higher 50 percent that Congress mandated for new projects beginning in 1999.
Environmental groups also have concerns.
Joshua Saks, legislative director of the National Wildlife Federation, said two sections would hamstring the environmental review process in order to speed the completion of projects. "What they call streamlining is such a deal-breaker for us that we can't support this bill with that in it,'' Saks said. "When you do projects on the scope of things that get authorized by the water resources development act, they can have significant impact on habitat on landscape, on flooding, on people and property.''
Most of the spending in the bill involves an authorization to spend money, meaning that Congress would have to include the money in future budgets.
The big ticket authorizations cover projects that the Army Corps of Engineers already has approved or is expected to approve by the end of this year. A list of the major projects provided by the National Wildlife Federation shows the federal government would be committed to $9.56 billion for projects mostly in the South and Southeast in places such as Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Mississippi and North Carolina. There are none in New York.
Contact Brian Tumulty at email@example.com