Imagine that the government was sitting on a pile of money – billions, actually – that had been collected for a purpose that is critical to maintaining our nation’s standing in the global economy. Now consider that, if this money were put to the use for which it was collected, it would create middle-class jobs and foster commerce. You’d think the nation’s lawmakers, who read the same jobs reports we do, would have put that money right to work, wouldn’t you?
If you did, you’d be wrong.
In reality, you don’t have to imagine the scenario I just laid out; incredibly, this is the fate of much of the revenue collected through the Harbor Maintenance Tax – money collected from shippers for the purpose of maintaining and improving the nation’s ports and navigation channels.
The dollars collected through the tax go to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF), which finances the work of dredging and taking care of the ports’ infrastructure needs. Yet, even as many of our ports lack the necessary depths to properly accommodate the next generation of container ships that move freight, the HMTF has, year after year, racked up surpluses – at least in theory. In truth, about half of the money collected through the Harbor Maintenance Tax has been used for other purposes. The trust fund’s current on-paper surplus weighs in at $7 billion.
That’s why TTD is supporting legislation introduced last week in both the House and Senate that would require the resources of the HMTF to be spent on port upkeep, dredging and other harbor maintenance projects. (Actually, we’ve been advocating this approach for a while now.) As Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said at a hearing on the matter last week: “Continued maintenance of port facilities is critical for the commerce and jobs that rely on these economic hubs…”
As if the current inadequate level of maintenance wasn’t enough of a problem, U.S. ports now face the prospect of mega-vessels traveling through what will soon be the newly expanded Panama Canal that will bring super-sized container ships to our ports, or even worse, see them diverted to foreign ports. If we are serious about being the world’s economic power we certainly can’t permit technology and innovation to leave our freight transportation system and economy behind.
Whether the HMTF has been diverted to other purposes or simply stuffed under Uncle Sam’s mattress, it’s time to put those dollars to work – to make sure we do right by an industry and workforce that play a critical role in our economy.
Yes, let’s imagine that day when America actually spends harbor trust fund dollars to boost port and maritime jobs and America’s competitiveness in an increasingly brutal global economy. It is time for lawmakers to end HMTF accounting gimmickry that is harming our economy and stifling maritime commerce.