Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
User fees paid into the trust fund that finances harbor dredging vastly exceed spending, giving the fund an estimated $8-billion balance.

Congress is just starting to write a new Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, but it is already clear that one focus of the bill, which will map policy and authorize funds for the Army Corps of Engineers civil-works program, will be cutting the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund surplus by boosting spending on harbor dredging and other projects.

The Office of Management and Budget estimated the fund will take in more than $1.8 billion in 2013 user fees and interest but will have only $872 million in spending and an $8.1-billion balance.

At a Jan. 31 Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said administrations "do not spend the funds in the trust fund the way they're meant to be spent." Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) called ports "grossly underfunded," citing Corps data that the 59 busiest harbor and waterway channels are dredged to authorized dimensions only 35% of the time.

Boxer also wants the new WRDA to "increase equity" in dividing trust-fund revenue. She said, "Currently, some of these ports receive only a fraction of the funds that they pay into the trust fund." In 2011, ports in Boxer's state had 32% of all trust-fund receipts, or $431 million, but got only 8%, or $54 million, in projects in return, Michael Christensen, Port of Los Angeles deputy executive director of development, said in his testimony.

Boxer also is seeking to permit limited, new uses for trust-fund aid. Christensen said California ports want maintenance berth dredging and sediment disposal to be made eligible for trust-fund dollars. New House transportation committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) also says WRDA will be a 2013 priority.