The House has approved legislation that would ease the path for Congress to spend down the balance in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, a move that could provide a boost for future spending on port deepening projects.

The House cleared the bill on Oct. 28 on a 296-109 vote, under a House procedure called suspension of the rules. It limits the amount of debate, but requires a two-thirds majority to pass.  [View fact sheet for bill here.] 

It is one of the few important infrastructure bills, other than appropriations, to win House or Senate approval this year. [View bill text here.]

The trust fund is supported by the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT), which is imposed on imported waterborne freight. The fund had an estimated $9.5-billion uncommitted balance at the end of fiscal year 2019, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

The House bill’s main sponsor, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), said in a statement, “These are fees already collected by the federal government and it’s about time the money is used for its intended purpose—harbor maintenance.”

William Doyle, Dredging Contractors of America Chief Executive Officer, said in a statement that the bill would permit spending of about $34 billion over the next 10 years, “which will allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge all federal harbors to their constructed widths and depths.”

Chris Connor, American Association of Port Authorities chief executive officer, said in a statement that the bill’s approval “is a critical first step to solve the problems with the HMT.”

The next step is up to the Senate. There has been no action in that chamber yet, but AAPA said that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is expected to release initial language concerning the harbor tax in the next several weeks as part of a broader new water resources bill.

Even if the measure is signed into law it still would be up to congressional appropriators to follow through and include the additional trust fund dollars in annual spending bills. One positive sign is that those voting in favor of the measure include House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).

The House-passed legislation would raise the discretionary spending caps set under the 1985 Gramm-Rudman budget and deficit-reduction law, to provide room for appropriators to increase spending from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.

The new cap would be set at the total in the trust fund at the end of the fiscal year that occurs two years earlier.