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Capitol Watch: Fixing the HMTF: A Bipartisan Win?

By Katie Cross, Associate, Blakey & Agnew

2017 has given us many shiny objects to focus on: health care, tax reform, the border wall, a potential infrastructure package, NAFTA renegotiation. And every day there seems to be a new headline demanding attention. With all this buzzing around, you would be forgiven for thinking that Congress is completely consumed with only the most visible issues. However, even with these shiny objects jostling for attention, Congress has still been introducing not-so-visible bills, including a few hoping to address a problem that has long been a thorn in the side of many transportation stakeholders.

Created to fund harbor maintenance and dredging projects, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund's (HMTF) purpose has been diluted by appropriators choosing to use its balance to offset other Federal expenditures. Because of this, in 2014 only a little more than half of annual receipts were spent on harbor maintenance projects. For years, Congress looked to correct this. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014 and the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016 both included target increases for spending of annual receipts from the HMTF until all money collected in a fiscal year is also expended, by 2025. And Congress has been following these targets, meeting the designated benchmarks in fiscal years 2015, 2016 and 2017. In fiscal year 2017, 71 percent of annual receipts were designated to be spent.

Stakeholders continue urging Congress to meet the targets laid out in WRRDA and WRDA but some Members of Congress believe more should be done. In April 2017, Congressmen Kelly (R-PA) and DeFazio (D-OR) introduced the Investing in America: Unlocking the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Act. The bill calls for the full expenditure of the HMTF annually, instead of the phase-in approach created in the WRRDA and WRDA bills, and requires funds be used to maintain U.S. commercial harbors. It would also allow Congress to appropriate the HMTF's $9 billion balance for harbor maintenance needs. According to the bill's sponsors, H.R. 1908 could provide more than $18 billion in funding over the next 10 years.

Congressman Reichert (R-WA) and Senator Murray (D-WA) teamed up and introduced legislation

requiring the immediate full annual expenditure of HMTF receipts in their respective Chambers in late June 2017. Titled the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Reform Act of 2017, it aims to address another key stakeholder complaint about the HMTF – cargo diversion. The bill would provide shipper rebates to encourage shippers to move their cargo through U.S. ports instead of moving to ports in Canada or Mexico that may not have similar fees.

Other concerns about the HMTF still exist. Some U.S. ports call for expanded use of the HMTF beyond harbor maintenance projects and others call for a return to source model to guarantee that ports receive funds from the HMTF equal to those that are collected on cargo moving through their ports.

None of the three bills have been addressed in their respective Committees. However, the Investing in America: Unlocking the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Act and the House's Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Reform Act of 2017 have bipartisan support. This is impressive, especially in a time when partisan politics are becoming increasingly intense. When the new Congress first arrived on Capitol Hill many speculated that the two sides could work across the aisle on an infrastructure package. While there is still much hope for this to come to fruition, that particular big ticket item's timeline has been continuously pushed back. Passing a smaller, less shiny piece of legislation that could still have a large impact on the transportation community as a whole, like addressing the HMTF, could be easier in this environment and its success could encourage future bipartisanship, opening the door to the passage of a $1 trillion infrastructure package.

Blakey & Agnew, LLC is a public affairs and
communications consulting firm based in
Washington, DC.