Bipartisan bill would give Great Lakes "navigation system" status, giving communities access to more infrastructure funding
Congress members Brian Higgins and Louise M. Slaughter introduced the Great Lakes Navigation System Sustainability Act to modernize the current Great Lakes navigation system. This legislation would establish a single, comprehensive Great Lakes navigation system for budgeting purposes. It would take all the individually authorized commercial and recreational navigation projects in the Great Lakes and recognize them as a unified entity to ensure adequate funding.
This legislation also creates a program to help reduce the harbor maintenance backlog. It does not create any new spending. Instead, it uses existing funds from the underutilized harbor maintenance trust fund to establish a cost-share program that makes these funds available by giving priority to harbors that provide a 50 percent cost-share for a Great Lakes navigation system project.
The bill is a bipartisan effort by Democrats Slaughter and Higgins and Republicans Candace Miller (MI-10), Bill Huizenga (MI-02) and Dan Benishek (MI-01).
"This takes a big-picture approach to Great Lakes maintenance and improvements, raising the profile of Western New York's waterways at the national level," said Higgins, a member of the Great Lakes Task Force. "Our proximity to water provides unique economic opportunities. Investments in our harbors and water infrastructure provide vast economic and environmental returns."
"The Great Lakes are one of our country's greatest economic engines and natural treasures, and with this designation the federal government will treat it as such," Slaughter said. "This designation will provide Great Lakes communities access to critical infrastructure dollars to improve our ports and drive economic growth for our region. As the source of 20 percent of the world's fresh water, we have an obligation to protect and preserve the Great Lakes for future generations. I thank my partners on both sides of the aisle for their work on this effort, and look forward to passing this legislation and seeing these benefits realized for the Great Lakes."
Higgins' camp said that, unlike the coastal port ranges, waterborne commerce on the Great Lakes consists of an interdependent system of connecting channels linking ports both large and small. Currently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers treats the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers as "systems" for budgeting purposes - but instead it views the Great Lakes as a collection of individual channels and ports, essentially pitting them against one another for funding. This legislation will assist recreational harbors by authorizing a federal-cost sharing partnership to provide up to a 50/50 funding share for operations and maintenance projects.
They added that, while the other waterway channels and ports in the nation have access to funding, the Great Lakes waterways are faced with decades of inadequate funding for dredging and infrastructure maintenance and modernization.
The harbor maintenance trust fund was established in 1986 to fund the operation and maintenance of ports and harbors (such as dredging, dredged material disposal areas, jetties and breakwaters), and is funded by the harbor maintenance tax, a tax imposed on shippers based on the value of the goods being shipped through ports. The harbor maintenance trust fund was approximately $7 billion at the end of FY12 and continues to grow by hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Groups supporting the Great Lakes Navigation System Sustainability Act are: the Great Lakes Small Harbors Coalition, the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force, the Lake Carriers' Association, the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition and the American Great Lakes Ports Association.