The issue of the federal fuel tax, which stagnation has meant diminishing returns on transportation funding, has been the endless topic of wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth at any gathering of industry officials.
The Administration's refusal to even consider an interim gas tax increase. Congressional sniping and inaction regarding transportation reauthorization. And the sound of endless bipartisan expert commission recommendations disappearing into the whirlpool of partisan anger and anxiety over a million other things—all these have made being a transportation journalist about as cheerful as watching paint dry, rot, peel off and drop into the river.
It's already a bummer hearing airport officials mourn the fact that they can't get a minimal passenger facility increase to fund crucial projects. It's depressing hearing transit officials wonder how they're going to even maintain aging systems, let alone expand them. And the hopes for high-speed rail in this country? For some reason the Red Sox come to mind.
But wait, there's more! I met with John LaRue, executive director of the Port of Corpus Christi, who actually has an overall optimistic tale to tell. Thanks to an influx of foreign investors and the proximity of natural gas shale reserves, the port is ramping up on its La Quinta Trade Gateway Multi-Purpose Facility, with a $50-million project underway to extend a channel and $80 million in rail expansions. A Chinese company is building a $1-billion manufacturing facility, and a $3-billion new power plan is also underway.
What about dredging the harbor to 52 ft? I asked.
He winced. And then he told me about the Harbor Maintenance Tax. It is a 0.125% tax that ports pay on imports and domestic shipments. It's flush, with about $5 billion in there and $1.5 billion a year coming in. Yet, according to the American Association of Port Authorities, annual expenditures for channel maintenance from the fund average only $800 million. The government won't allow more money for needed projects. And if LaRue wants to dredge to 52 ft to accommodate larger ships, the federal funding share drops to 50%. No money comes from the harbor tax fund.
So LaRue says ruefully: "Those highway and airport people have it good."
Susan Brake of DCI, who introduced us, said thoughtfully: "It's like ports are the red-headed stepchild of transportation."
And transportation per se is a forgotten child among all the national concerns swirling about. Never mind bridge collapses. That was, like, three years ago! Who cares when we've got so much more partisan bickering to do.