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Stimulus bill includes long-sought change to harbor fund

Provision would make it easier for Congress to spend money to maintain nation's harbors

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., pushed a provision included in coronavirus stimulus bill that would remove limits on spending from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., pushed a provision included in coronavirus stimulus bill that would remove limits on spending from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Tucked in the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill is a long-sought provision that has little directly to do with the virus but would make it easier for Congress to spend money to maintain harbors.

Since 1986, the federal government has been collecting a fee from imported cargo owners for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund that’s used to pay for the dredging of harbors. Under a 1990 budget bill, the fee grew from 0.04 percent to 0.125 percent of the value of the cargo carried.

But that 1990 law also implemented discretionary caps on the funds, meaning that instead of going directly to dredging, dollars collected from the fund have gone toward the general Treasury and are subject to the same budget caps as the rest of the federal budget.

The provision by Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., included in the stimulus bill, seeks to exempt the trust fund from such caps. According to the American Association of Port Authorities, an association representing 78 U.S. ports, the trust fund has $9.3 billion in unspent collections as of the end of FY 2019.

But as recently as 2013, according to the association, the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains ports, received only 48 cents per dollar of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund revenues. In 2014, Congress included a provision in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 setting spending targets that would move toward using the trust fund fully for harbor maintenance by 2025.

They’re getting closer.

In FY 2019 alone, said Jeff Davis of the Eno Center for Transportation, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund receipts and interest alone were $1.77 billion. The FY 2020 appropriation for dredging was about $1.63 billion. At the same time, harbor maintenance needs are growing: According to a fact sheet released by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure earlier this year, navigation channels at the nation’s busiest 59 ports are available less than 35 percent of the time because of maintenance needs.

In September, the House passed a bill that would allow the use of all dollars from the tax to be spent for harbor maintenance. That bill irritated budget hawks and groups such as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, who said it would drive up budget deficits.

While that bill would’ve allowed the entire $9.3 billion balance in the trust fund and the previous year’s deposits to be spent, Shelby’s language only allows the previous year’s deposits to be spent. In other words, fund taxes collected in FY 2020 could be spent in FY 2021.

While not directly related to the coronavirus, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio views the provision a “more a long-term recovery concept,” according to an aide.

“We need ports to be operating efficiently to restore the supply chain capacity, and that includes maintenance dredging”, the aide said, adding the bill “seemed a logical way” to move toward full use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.

Still, the aide said, “we view this as being a huge win.”

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