Sediment isn’t sexy. But we need to talk about it, because who should pay for removing sediment and debris from harbors is a serious subject. Sediment fills channels and harbors and removing it by dredging ensures U.S. ports remain open to all manner of vessel.
Maintaining any form of infrastructure is costly. It’s particularly pricey for smaller ports, including the Port of Galveston, which moves 5 million tons of cargo — including wind power and agriculture equipment, fertilizer, lumber and bulk grain — as well as 1 million cruise passengers yearly. Galveston alone spends about $1 million every 18 months to keep its slips and berths dredged.
But the perpetual question is: Who should pay for these projects? It’s a touchy subject the feds have wrestled with for years.
The federal government has assumed principal responsibility for maintenance of the nation’s harbors and shipping channels. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversees such maintenance, which is largely funded through the harbor maintenance trust fund. The fund receives revenue from taxes on waterborne cargo and cruise-ship passengers. The taxes, which have been the subject of legal challenges, complaints and resistance, became effective on April 11, 1987. Some argue the money generated by the taxes doesn’t flow to projects in the way it should.
Proposals to impose user fees on specific vessels at U.S. ports to pay for dredging and maintenance also have been met with resistance. Opponents assert the fees would upset the competitive status quo among U.S. ports and divert cargo to Canadian and Mexican ports, according a report by the Maritime Institute Department of Economics.
All the taxing and fee impositions are meant to require those who benefit from maintenance of U.S. ports and harbors to share the cost of the maintenance. But asking who benefits from the maintenance of harbors is like asking who benefits from the maintenance of freeways. If you’re a U.S. consumer who has taken a cruise, bought a TV or pretty much anything else, then you benefit from dredging.
Likewise, Texas ports support 1.5 million jobs and generate $367 million in economic activity, according to the Texas Ports Association.
Because federal money isn’t easy to come by and the state never kicks in, ports have long struggled financially to maintain waterways.
But there could be hope. The Texas House of Representatives on Tuesday approved the Texas Port Expansion Act by a 146-0 vote. The bill proposes creating a revolving fund that would set general fund money aside for port dredging projects.
The Texas Transportation Commission would make loans to ports for matching funds on projects approved by Congress. The bill, however, doesn’t set aside any money for port maintenance projects, at least not this year.
State Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican whose district includes Bolivar Peninsula, authored the bill.
“The loan program created by SB 28 will provide critical assistance to state navigation districts as they work to widen or deepen federal channels to facilitate more and bigger ships,” said Roger Guenther, president of the Texas Ports Association.
The bill received the support of Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has lobbied for port initiatives since at least 2015. The Senate in April unanimously approved the bill.
Although certainly not a measure to help ports immediately, it’s a start.
All that must be done now is for the bill to be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott, who can sign it into law or veto it.
We urge Abbott to sign it into law.
• Laura Elder