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HERALD PALLADIUM: Congress OKs funding for harbor dredging

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St. Joseph, MI, April 22, 2012 | Meghan Kolassa ((202) 225-3761) | comments
By Scott Aiken -

The U.S. House approved legislation this week that would ensure funding for maintenance dredging to keep harbors on the Great Lakes in operation.

A provision included with a short-term highway bill guarantees the use of all funding going into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is used as intended.

The fund, supported by a tax imposed on commercial shippers, is used to maintain harbors and has always been adequate to keep open deep-draft ports and waterways.

But only about half of the $1.6 billion collected by the fund each year is appropriated for harbor maintenance, allowing a huge backlog of needed work to develop.

The fund currently has a surplus of about $7 billion. But because funding for dredging has been inadequate for many years, more than 16 million cubic yard of sediment clog Great Lakes ports and waterways, according to a task force working to address the problem.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who has worked for years to get adequate funding for the St. Joseph River harbor and other Great Lakes commercial harbors, welcomed passage of the legislation.

"Ensuring our harbors remain open and ready for business is essential to job creation and growth here in Southwest Michigan," Upton said. "Rather than denying our local harbors these vital dredging dollars - money that is already paid into the system through harbor user fees - we must see to it that our harbors remain bastions of economic growth."

The amendment would require using trust fund revenue for dredging in the years ahead but does not address the surplus developed over the years, which is held as government bonds.

Eugene Caldwell, president of the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force, said passage of the House resolution and amendment "represents further progress" in requiring that the trust fund money all be spent on dredging each year.

The task force is a large coalition of groups representing labor and management that promotes waterborne commerce on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway. Caldwell is also vice president and general manager of Bay Shipbuilding Co., Sturgeon Bay, Wis.

"This is important progress as this legislation moves forward toward a House-Senate conference committee," Caldwell said.

Don Cree, first vice president of the task force, said the dredging crisis has limited the ability of Great Lakes shipping to efficiently serve industry in the region.

SDLqShips designed to carry more than 70,000 tons of iron ore or coal each trip have routinely left port with 10 percent or more of their hauling power unused," he said.

Cree is Great Lakes special assistant to the national president for American Maritime Officers, a labor union representing licensed officers on many Great Lakes vessels.

The legislation moves to a House-Senate conference committee, where it is backed by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and other senators in a bipartisan group.

Upton has worked to maintain commercial shipping in Great Lakes harbors, and supports the bipartisan Realize America's Maritime Promise (RAMP) Act.

It would also ensure that all federal revenue collected for harbor maintenance be used for that purpose and not left unspent as a budgetary offset.

Last winter, Upton worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for maintaining commercial harbors, to get emergency funding to dredge the St. Joseph harbor after shoaling caused by storms shut it down.

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