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Federal dredging bills to tackle ‘critical’ need

Keywords: Tags  steel, dredging, iron ore, ports, Great Lakes Maritime Task Force, Donald Cree, James Weakley, Lake Carriers Association Jo-Ellen Darcy

CHICAGO — Legislation seeking to alleviate the federal "dredging crisis" has been introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate, with some shippers and ports hopeful the bills could provide a major efficiency boost at commerce-bearing lakes, rivers and ports.

"Congress must quickly pass these bills," Donald N. Cree, president of the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force, said in a statement. "The dredging crisis is obliterating the efficiencies of Great Lakes shipping."

If passed, H.R.335 and companion bill S.218 would require the entire funds collected via a 0.125-percent harbor maintenance tax to be spent on dredging, as mandated in the transportation bill. Although money is being collected for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, only a fraction of it is being spent on federal dredging projects, bill advocates say. Instead, according to the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force, the fund’s surplus, now approaching $7 billion, "is used to mask the size of the federal deficit rather than maintain ports and waterways."

As a result, 17 million cubic yards of sediment clog Great Lakes harbors, forcing the largest vessels to move 10,000 fewer tons of cargo—from iron ore to finished steel—per trip, the Toledo, Ohio-based task force said.

"Plunging water levels (caused by drought) are beyond anyone’s control, but the dredging crisis is man-made," said James H.I. Weakley, vice president of the task force and president of the Lake Carriers’ Association.

But it’s not just shippers and ports along the Great Lakes that are backing the proposed legislation. Port officials coast to coast also have taken up the cause, according to testimony at a Jan. 31 Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spends $1.7 billion per year to replace, rehabilitate, operate and maintain commercial navigation infrastructure for 13,000 miles of coastal channels and 12,000 miles of inland waterways, Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army’s civil works division, told the committee.

Most ports are able to process current cargo rates at today’s funding levels, she said, but "some carriers encounter delays, need to proceed more slowly due to hazards, light-load their vessels or offload some cargo to smaller vessels" due to the lack of dredging.

The issue becomes even more pressing as the country’s ports prepare to handle bigger vessels that will start to come through an enlarged Panama Canal in about two years, Darcy said. "Many of the world’s shipping companies are constructing larger, more-efficient container vessels that require channel depths of 50 to 55 feet when the vessels are fully loaded." But on the East Coast, only Norfolk and Baltimore have ports deep enough to receive ships that large, although the Port of New York/New Jersey is dredging now to reach 50-foot depths in 2015.

"The (Army) Corps is working with seven ports on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to evaluate proposals to deepen or widen their channels," Darcy said.

Some ports—like the Port of Houston Authority—have announced their own dredging plans, but out of their own pockets rather than with federal funding (, Dec. 28).

Andrew H. Cairns, representing the American Society of Civil Engineers, testified that a study conducted last year estimated the country’s maritime investment needs will total $30 billion through 2020 but planned expenditures amount to only $14 billion.

The study calculated costs attributable to shipment delays in the nation’s inland waterways in 2010 at $33 billion, costs that "reverberate throughout the economy," Cairns said. "This cost is expected to increase to nearly $49 billion by 2020" if the crumbling waterways infrastructure is not restored.

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