By Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR)
Ranking Member of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee
Ports and waterways have been at the heart of our economy since the start of our nation. For centuries, communities, businesses and jobs have depended on safe and efficient maritime transportation. As Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, we face a series of critical issues this Congress—and improving maritime infrastructure is one of them.
Last year, we were able to pass the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), one of the few major bipartisan accomplishments of an otherwise ineffective Congress. With WRRDA, Republicans and Democrats were able to come together and pass legislation that reformed many aspects of the Army Corps of Engineers project delivery process and strengthened America’s waterborne infrastructure, ensuring the swift movement of goods through our nation’s ports and inland waterways.
One of the important provisions in the bill requires full utilization of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) for harbor maintenance and dredging by 2025. Currently only about half of the funds collected through the HMTF are used for harbor maintenance. This provision put us on the path towards recapturing that funding and using it to equitably address the Corps’ backlog of projects for all federally authorized harbors, and, when fully implemented, will stop the federal government from raiding the fund to pay for non-port related projects.
Many of our nation’s ports are in serious need of dredging and repair. The Corps has long been shortchanged in the budgeting process, leaving them cash-strapped and unable to compete fairly for dredging dollars. Rehabilitating a jetty or dredging at a port means employment today for American businesses and workers — steelworkers, engineers, construction workers and other suppliers – and it leaves an asset that will benefit local communities for generations. That asset allows shippers and businesses to get their goods to the domestic and international markets efficiently, saving money that can be reinvested in the company and its workers.
The perfect example of the direct link to the health of local economies and a fully functional maritime and transportation infrastructure can be found right in my home district.
Take for example, the 134-mile Coos Bay Rail Line. For almost 100 years, the Coos Bay Rail Line connected a number of major shippers in rural Oregon with access to the Port of Coos Bay. In September 2007, the rail line was shutdown overnight, with no notice, by the New York hedge fund that then owned it. The impacts were immediate.
The average shipper saw costs increase by 10 to 15 percent. Workers started getting pink slips – one company downsized from 110 employees to a 13-person skeleton crew. The week after the closure, another company temporarily shut down, laying off 120 employees.
It took years, but eventually a group of local stakeholders, elected officials and businesses formed, and we were successful in forcing the hedge fund to sell the line to the Port of Coos Bay. Today, we once again have the vital link between businesses and the port, and it’s successful. The Coos Bay Rail Link was named Short Line of the Year in 2014 by Railway Age. This example underscores how interconnected our transportation infrastructure network truly is, and how vital an efficient and functioning system is to the companies and people who depend on it.
We cannot lag behind competitor nations. We must invest in the backbone of our economy to move our goods and people more efficiently, and we need the jobs that come with this investment.
Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) and I are committed to working together, in a bipartisan fashion, to tackle the many critical issues facing our maritime infrastructure. Together, we can lay the groundwork for a network that delivers for generations to come.