July 29, 2020

Moulton Secures Money to Dredge Small Harbors

Today the House passed a bill that would spend $34 billion on dredging over the next decade. Moulton got the Committee on Transportation to make sure $6.8 billions of it was set aside for small harbors.

SALEM, Mass. – Today, the House of Representatives passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2020. The bill as passed would allow the Army Corps of Engineers to spend $34 billion for harbor dredging over the next decade. Representative Seth Moulton wrote a letter to the Committee on Transportation asking them to increase the amount of this money that it devotes to small harbors. The committee increased the percentage from 10 to 20 percent, meaning as much as $6.8 billion of the money is set aside for small harbors.

“Across the country, small harbors like ours are overlooked by Congress, which tends to favor massive port infrastructure projects,” Moulton said, “Small harbors are just as important to our economies as large ports are to big cities, and in many cases, they are part of our identity. This is a great win, but now I have to work to make sure this money survives negotiations with the Senate so dredging projects like Newburyport Harbor will have a better shot at getting funded.”

The Water Resources Development Act of 2020 is the latest edition of bipartisan legislation enacted every two years to fund infrastructure that supports America’s waterways. Congress also uses the bill to conduct oversight of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for building and maintaining the nation’s harbors, rivers and dams.

In a letter to the leaders of the House Committee on Transportation, Congressman Moulton noted the pressing needs for harbor dredging on the North Shore and asked for an increase in the formula that determines which projects get funded. In the past, it's been customary for the committee to devote 10 percent of the bill’s money to pay for all of the dredging and maintenance projects in the nation’s small harbors, which Congress defines as ports that handle less than 1 million tons of cargo annually.

When harbors and other waterways aren’t dredged because the government doesn’t provide the funding, public safety and businesses suffer. The plan to dredge the Annisquam River, for example, was ignored for so long that the Coast Guard worried its boats could no longer reach boaters in an emergency. Moulton had to make a personal appeal to the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the river, and then build a coalition of state and local leaders in order to pay for the project after the Army Corps of Engineers significantly underestimated the project’s cost.

Moulton’s request to the committee this year worked. The Water Resources Development Act of 2020 increased the percentage of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund dedicated to emerging harbor projects to 20 percent. If the plan to fully spend the fund survives negotiation, Moulton’s push will mean $6.8 billion of the $34 billion the Army Corps of Engineers could spend on port dredging will come to small harbors.

The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund accrues money through taxes levied to companies that use ports to ship commercial goods. The concept is similar to how states pay for road maintenance through tolls. Ultimately, the Army Corps of Engineers makes an annual work plan that determines how the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund’s money is spent.

Moulton will continue advocating to ensure the Army Corps’ leaders prioritize the federal navigation projects on the North Shore.

The text of Moulton’s letter is copied below.

Dear Chairman DeFazio and Ranking Member Graves,

Thank you for your leadership promoting the growth and sustainability of coastal blue economies in the United States. As in Oregon, small harbors and waterways are an essential component of the Massachusetts culture and economy. I urge you to put forward a proposal that will allow our communities and economies to thrive and meet the challenges of the 21st century.

In drafting the House reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act, I request inclusion of the following priorities for the Massachusetts Sixth District:

  • Expanding the Emerging Harbor Projects Set-Aside: The Emerging Harbor Projects set-aside (33 U.S.C. 2238) currently dedicates at least 10 percent of annual appropriations for the operations and maintenance costs of all U.S. harbors for small and emerging harbors that transit less than 1 million tons of cargo annually. In 2019, the Army Corps estimated that full channels at the nation’s 59 busiest ports are available less than 35% of the time, and the conditions of small and emerging harbors are far worse. Insufficient funding for maintenance and dredging projects for our small and emerging harbors and waterways threatens public safety as the accumulation of sand in rivers and harbors has reached new and dangerous levels. U.S. Coast Guard Station Merrimack River in Newburyport has even reported being unable to cross the mouth of the river at low tide, compromising deployment during lifesaving missions and threatening public safety. Furthermore, economic development is hindered by underfunding the maintenance of emerging harbors. Harbor shoaling has impacted our region’s commercial fishing fleet, charter fishing companies, and tour boat operations, with shallow conditions even limiting access to overnight dock space and subsequently both direct and indirect benefits to local communities from the fees and commerce generated by visiting vessels. Even more, many coastal economies have endured severe economic consequences during the COVID-19 pandemic, recovery from which will require maintained and operable harbors.

For the importance of emerging harbors to the blue economies of my district and across the U.S., I request the annual set-aside for Emerging Harbor Projects be raised to 15 percent of the annual appropriations for operations and maintenance costs of all U.S. harbors.

  • Expanding the Storm and Hurricane Restoration and Impact Minimization Program: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Storm and Hurricane Restoration and Impact Minimization Program (33 U.S.C. 426g) is designed for the construction of small shore and beach restoration and protection projects, where specific USACE projects are not already authorized. Demand for this program will increase as greater and more frequent storms expedite coastal erosion and devastate communities across the Massachusetts Sixth District and nation more broadly. The increased risk to coastal communities will outpace Congress’ ability to authorize and fund—as well as USACE’s ability to complete—feasibility studies and projects in the coming years. In the absence of specifically authorized projects and coordinate regional solutions, USACE must be able to conduct small beach nourishment and other resiliency projects under its Continuing Authority Program to mitigate and repair the damage to our shorelines.

As such, I request increasing the annual authorized appropriation for this program from its current level of $37.5 million to $50 million. Furthermore, I request that the total federal share for a project be raised from $10 million to $15 million as we can expect costlier projects in the coming years.

  • Coastal Resiliency: I would like to voice my emphatic support for the continued work of the committee on promoting coastal resiliency through nature-based solutions. It is important that we give clear guidance to the USACE so that they can further emphasize and deploy this important technique of sustainable shoreline development. We have seen a number of these projects in my district from the Little River floodplain and habitat restoration in Gloucester to the massive undertaking of the Great Marsh Coastal Adaptation Plan. In the past, the New England region has relied on gray infrastructure to provide resilience. According to state figures, 46% of the North Shore coastline includes engineered structures. Particular attention should be paid to how these legacy structures can be best incorporated, adapted, or removed to encourage nature-based solutions while increasing overall coastal resilience.

Thank you for considering these priorities for my district in the House WRDA draft. My team and I are happy to provide additional research and context to support these requests. I look forward to working with you to support the sustainability and economic growth of our coastal communities as we prepare to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Sincerely,
Seth Moulton
Member of Congress

BACKGROUND FROM THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON TRANSPORTATION

In 1986, Congress enacted the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) to recover the operation and maintenance dredging costs for commercial ports from maritime shippers. The HMT is directly levied on importers and domestic shippers using coastal or inland ports as a 0.125 percent ad valorem tax on the value of imported cargo (e.g., $1.25 per $1,000 value) and is typically passed along to U.S. taxpayers on the purchase of imported goods or services.

These revenues are deposited into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund within the U.S. Treasury from which Congress currently appropriates funds to the Corps for harbor maintenance dredging.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Trust Fund will collect an additional $24.5 billion in new revenues (including interest) over the next decade—on top of the estimated $9.3 billion in previously collected but unspent revenues. Yet, according to CBO, Federal appropriations from the Trust Fund are only estimated to total $19.4 billion over the same decade, resulting in the Trust Fund balance reaching $14.4 billion in fiscal year 2029.

Additional info here.

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