Nation Can't Afford to Neglect Shipping Channels
by Editorial Board
The Daily News, May 11, 2008
The Columbia River channel deepening project could be finished at the end of fiscal 2009, a year ahead of schedule, if Congress goes along with the President Bush's proposed spending. The administration is calling for a $36 million appropriation to complete dredging that will deepen the shipping channel to 43 feet from Astoria to Portland.
The possibility of an early completion date is welcome news. Time, in fact, is money insofar as port communities along the lower Columbia River are concerned. That extra three-feet of depth in the shipping channel is needed to accommodate larger, more efficient cargo vessels. For some time now, larger ships have had to take on lighter loads of grain from the Port of Kalama in order to navigate the 40-foot-deep channel. Port of Kalama officials have estimated that the deeper channel will mean an extra $132 million in annual revenue for the port.
It's now up to Congress to put this project on a fast track. And we learned during a recent editorial board with Port of Longview executive director Ken O'Hollaren and Kurt Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities, that Congress also will have a critical role in maintaining the deeper channel through regular appropriations from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.
The money for this fund comes from the ports, which collect a tax from shippers on the value of imported and domestic cargo. The fund takes in about $1.3 billion a year nationally. That's roughly what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs to maintain the nation's shipping channels. But Congress has been appropriating only around $750 million annually in recent years. As a result, the trust fund is steadily building a surplus and maintenance dredging is just as steadily falling behind what's needed to keep pace with the nation's growing international trade.
Scrimping on maintenance dredging is penny-wise and pound-foolish. This is a critical, ongoing infrastructure investment. The money is there. Using it for other purposes carries real economic risks, and it's wasteful. Failure to maintain the Columbia River's deeper shipping channel, for example, would waste the $160 million investment in the channel-deepening project.
The American Association of Port Authorities has urged Congress to guarantee that all the money in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund be used for its intended purpose. That's how Congress treats the nation's Highway Trust Fund. Maintaining shipping channels is no less important to commerce and trade than maintaining highways. Indeed, for this and other port communities maintenance dredging is an economic necessity.
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