“We’re here to help shape what a national maritime policy should be. We have pieces of a maritime policy in this country, but they’re disjointed at best,” Congressman Garamendi explained at the onset of the meeting.
“I hope today’s conversation helps us create some continuity,” he concluded. “We discussed a lot today. I encourage all of you to let the Committee and me know what you think we should be focused on over the next six months. We all have different priorities and needs, but at the end of the day, when it comes to being committed to our maritime economy, we’re all on the same team.”
Time and again, the conversation boiled down to a lack of federal funding for maritime and transportation infrastructure and unwillingness among many in Congress to make the connection between economic growth and a well-functioning national freight system.
“The role of the federal government in American life is being debated in Congress,” Garamendi explained toward the end of the meeting. “At the moment, those who believe the federal government should be drastically reduced are winning the day and imposing an austerity budget on America. But ultimately, I think those of us who believe there’s a role for the federal government to invest and grow our economy will win the day.”
Garamendi alluded to a historic collaboration between President George Washington and his Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in 1783 to develop a growth plan for the country. Using federal funding to purchase American goods was embraced by both for the purposes of roads, canals, and other transportation infrastructure projects.
“We’ve been at this a long time,” he said.
Funding the Government and Sequestration’s Impact
“If the Continuing Resolution that passed the House remains in its current form, just with the Affordable Care Act language removed, it’s still going to be a continuation of sequestration-level funding,” Garamendi explained. “You’re going to continue having that five percent across-the-board cut, and that’s going to result in some significant reductions in Coast Guard operations.”
Rear Admiral Karl Schultz, Eleventh Coast Guard District Commander, noted that sequestration has reduced front line operations roughly 10 to 15 percent in the district, but the Coast Guard has been able to reallocate funds to continue to meet our highest operational priorities such as rescuing mariners in distress and tending to the safety and security of ports and waterways.
Army Corps of Engineers
In describing sequestration’s impact on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operations, Lieutenant Colonel John Baker of the San Francisco District noted that their funding is allocated to them on a project-by-project basis, or it goes to other federal agencies for which the Corps does work. So in many ways, it operates like a business, and declining funding is making Army Corps operations more challenging. He noted that they are closely monitoring the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which is a significant source of funding for maritime maintenance.
Harbor & Dredging Maintenance
Several participants expressed concerns about the disparity in the Harbor Maintenance Tax collected by California West Coast Ports versus hose tax revenues which are returned to the state for harbor maintenance, including dredging. $400 million in tax revenue is generated from the Harbor Maintenance Tax here in California, and yet California only sees approximately $70 million of it returned back to the state. This donor state inequity is perniciously felt along the largest coastline in the continental United States. Maintaining good shipping channels with ongoing dredging activities was a concern expressed broadly in the room.
Water Resources Reform and Development Act
Given the ongoing ban on formal earmarks in Congress, Garamendi urged local agencies with projects that need this federal support to alert the Army Corps of Engineers about their projects. As the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) moves forward, Congress will have a database of projects available to them as they allocate WRRDA funds.
One of the great infrastructure success stories in recent years has been the implementation of the Department of Transportation’s TIGER grant programs to meet the demand for transportation infrastructure projects. There was a sentiment in the room that the DOT’s TIGER grant program will continue to receive strong federal support from Senator Patty Murray directing funding on the Senate-side. Representatives from the ports agreed that they rely heavily on TIGER grant funding to help make their facilities efficient and attractive to shippers. Part of the discussion revolved around ways to ensure that more TIGER grant funding is allocated to the region, which requires coordination, advocacy, and funding matches from state and local agencies.
The ports also reiterated the need for adequate dredging funding. The ports feel that funding wetlands habitat restoration projects are often left up to them to fund, and they could use more federal support through WRRDA.