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Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Editorial: Money from Harbor Maintenance Tax must be used for intended purpose

Last Modified: Thursday, September 26, 2013 9:31 PM

The unprecedented coming surge of industrial expansion in Southwest Louisiana will bring an estimated $48 billion in capital investment, a huge wave of construction and permanent jobs, and positive ripples through our area economy.

It also promises to strain our infrastructure, including roads, schools and, equally as vital, the Calcasieu Ship Channel — a transportation artery that many of these new petrochemical and liquefied natural gas complexes will depend on.

The Port of Lake Charles Board of Commissioners earlier this week authorized a study that will forecast the increase in vessel traffic, when that increase will occur, and the ship channel’s challenges regarding safety and efficiency.

Arguably, the biggest drawback for the ship channel is maintaining its 40-foot depth. Funding for the Army Corps of Engineers to do so has been a pet peeve of U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, who represents Southwest Louisiana in Congress.

Boustany has been pushing his Realize America’s Maritime Promise Act to preserve the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for its intended purpose — operating and maintaining the nation’s ports and harbors.

The fund, created in 1986, comes from taxes that shipping companies pay. But like the Social Security fund, Congress has been raiding the fund and using the money for other expenditures.

The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund’s surplus stood at nearly $7 billion in October 2012, but all of that money is not being appropriated for its intended purpose.

As a result, the Corps of Engineers said that nearly 30 percent of all commercial vessels that call at U.S. ports cannot carry a full load of cargo because the ports’ shipping channels’ depths have not been properly maintained.

This not only drives up shipping costs, but increases the risk of a vessel being grounded and of an associated spill.

Odds are that the looming industrial expansion will propel the Lake Charles port into the nation’s top 10 in terms of cargo. But it won’t be the only port vying for channel maintenance. The widening of the Panama Canal will bring greater shipping opportunities to nearly all of the nation’s ports.

Boustany’s RAMP Act is still a stand-alone bill, but many of its provisions are being incorporated into the Water Resources Reform and Development bill, according to Neal Patel, Boustany’s communications director. While RAMP’s exact language has not been incorporated, the intent, Patel says, of RAMP is reflected in the WRRD bill — especially the importance of allocating money collected from the Harbor Maintenance Tax being used for that purpose.

That’s why this fight to see that the tax is used properly and not diverted elsewhere remains not only critical to Southwest Louisiana’s economic future, but to the nation’s as well.

• • •

This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Mike Jones, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.

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