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Sunday, 05 August 2012 18:37

New federal law lacks teeth to support Lake Michigan harbors

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New federal law lacks teeth to support Lake Michigan harbors PHOTO: Photography Plus
WEST MICHIGAN — A new law aimed to help port communities ensure they have federal funding to maintain their harbors appears to have fallen short of the towns' expectations.

While lawmakers were able to come to a consensus and pass the Realize America's Maritime Promise Act as part of HR 104 and SB 412, the language they hammered out in the conference committee ended up being non-binding — meaning the government isn't locked in to providing the harbor maintenance funding. That's left many West Michigan communities with federally authorized harbors wondering what's next.

The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund was established in 1986 to recover from shipping companies the operations and maintenance costs at coastal and Great Lakes harbors. The money is collected through the Harbor Maintenance Tax, which is levied on domestic shippers and importers at the rate of 0.125 percent of cargo value. Each year approximately $1.5 billion is collected through the tax. However, only about half of the money collected by the HMT is currently used by the Army Corps of Engineers for the maintenance of harbors. The rest of the funds raised through the tax have gone into the general fund.

Figures in the RAMP Act legislation put the projected year-end total for the trust fund at just over $7 billion.

The RAMP Act initially had the goal of ensuring that the trust fund money would be appropriately distributed to dredging and maintenance projects around the country. However, in wording the act, Congress only recommended that the government use all trust fund dollars to maintain harbors and did not require it to do so.

This recommendation is small comfort to Felicia Fairchild, executive director at the Saugatuck-Douglas Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"The act passed with weak wording," said Fairchild. "We can call it a moral victory. We got a lot of support in Congress, but nobody wanted to take a hard line on this issue."

Communities with recreational harbors or commercial harbors with less than 1 million tons of cargo generally don't have access to funding through the trust fund. Until recently, harbor maintenance funding for recreational and smaller harbors came via Congressional earmarks, but that mechanism has fallen out of favor in Washington.

Currently, trust fund dollars flow only to harbors that deal in over 1 million cubic tons of cargo per year, or that also service a power plant. All other harbors, federally authorized harbors included, will have to be dredged and maintained some other way, and many communities feel that they will be left holding the bag.

"I think the administration is putting the most emphasis on large, commercial harbors on the coasts that have a clear national economic impact," said Fairchild. "But essentially they're cutting us all adrift and saying, 'It's all on you.'"

According to Fairchild, all federally authorized harbors on the Great Lakes could be maintained at project depth for $20 million a year.

Of West Michigan's harbors, only a handful including Holland, Grand Haven and Muskegon will continue to receive federal funding for dredging projects, meaning that communities like St. Joseph, Charlevoix and Ludington will have to look elsewhere.

Tom O'Bryan, area engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, remains somewhat optimistic about what the RAMP Act means for West Michigan harbors.

"The RAMP Act will help out, but it's the first step, the first step in the right direction," said O'Bryan. "We have to be optimistic that the tax will be used for what it's supposed to be used for, and we should benefit."

O'Bryan's optimism stems from the fact that, while the act does not require the federal government to grant funding to all federally authorized harbors, it does recommend it. Still, like Fairchild, he is uncertain as to the act's effectiveness.

"I'm not sure how much money will make it to the Great Lakes, and of that I'm not sure how much will make it to West Michigan, or shallow-draft harbors for that matter," said O'Bryan. "We still do request funds for harbors that bring in under 1 million (tons of cargo). We don't get it, but we still request it."

The impact the passage of the RAMP Act will have on business is difficult to pin down. Should the federal government choose to follow the act's suggestions, all West Michigan's harbors will be brought up-to-date with regards to their dredging and maintenance, and businesses in both shallow and deep-draft harbors will benefit. However, if the federal government continues to fund only deep water harbors or shallow-draft harbors serving power plants, many communities and businesses that rely on tourist access to recreational harbors or small commercial harbors will suffer, according to Fairchild.

She said Saugatuck brings in about $155 million per year thanks to tourism and other discretionary spending.

"To be very honest, we're going to get lost in the shuffle," said Fairchild.

Saugatuck's situation is particularly dire, she said. The large, circular harbor is not actually maintained by the Corps. Rather, the channel cutting through downtown Saugatuck and out to Lake Michigan is the only federally maintained navigational aid.

Additionally, the Kalamazoo River dumps about 36,000 cubic yards of silt in the harbor per year, causing the harbor and channel to gradually silt up above their project depth of 14 feet, suitable for most vessels to pass safely. This problem is compounded by the fact that the Saugatuck harbor is part of the Kalamazoo River Superfund Site, which means the harbor cannot be dredged by conventional methods because of the contaminants in the silt.

"Our situation is very critical, the most severe in Michigan, and we're trapped," said Fairchild. "We're facing a huge mess."

Without continued federal assistance through the trust fund dollars for harbor maintenance, the citizens of Saugatuck and Douglas will have to pay $40 million to safely dredge the harbor to a sufficient depth, a financial burden the communities are not likely to be able to shoulder, Fairchild said. Other communities are facing similar, though less dire situations, and the economic impact of a potential dredging crisis in recreational harbors remains to be seen.

Still, even though legislators only adopted a non-binding "Sense of Congress" resolution, Fairchild feels it is a step in the right direction for Saugatuck and other West Michigan harbors.

"Many legislators are now aware of the dredging crisis," said Fairchild. "Before, they didn't even really know what was going on or how bad it was getting."

Read 1501 times Last modified on Tuesday, 21 August 2012 09:25

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