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Better roads for boaters to drive along when they’re trying to access local ramps. Better parking lots for boaters to leave their trailers when they head out on the water for a day. Better transient docks and marina services for boats with a length of 26 feet or more. Experts say these are just some of the projects expected to be funded through 2026 as a result of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Biden signed into law in mid-November.

The legislation marked a culmination of years’ worth of lobbying by numerous marine-related groups to make sure boating infrastructure was considered part of the debate about fixing the nation’s traditional infrastructure, resulting in what industry experts are calling a significant win for boaters nationwide. Lawmakers have given some attention to marine needs over the years, they say, but never anything on this scale.

“Of all the infrastructure bills this country has seen, this is by far the biggest testament to the growth of recreation’s presence,” says John-Michael Donahue, vice president of North American public affairs for the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

For starters, the infrastructure law includes reauthorization of the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund. About $750 million a year in taxes is collected from the sale of such items as fuel, fishing equipment and engines — tax dollars that are then funneled into access, boater education, aquatic conservation and other programs run by government entities, such as state fish and wildlife agencies and the Coast Guard. The reauthorization of the trust fund means that those hundreds of millions of tax dollars will continue to be used in those ways, instead of being rerouted for other purposes.

“We’re making sure that money continues to flow in a way that benefits boaters,” says David Kennedy, government affairs manager for BoatUS. “You don’t want that money being moved to fix potholes or bridges. Keeping it in boating and fishing is very important.”

Reauthorization of the trust fund through the infrastructure law also means federal money will continue flowing into state-level grant programs for access, says Callie Hoyt, NMMA’s director of federal government relations. “These are primarily for facilities that support transient boats 26 feet or more,” she says. “They’re projects that either have broken ground or will soon.”

Some money from the infrastructure bill will flow to state-level commissions for things like dredging. 

Some money from the infrastructure bill will flow to state-level commissions for things like dredging. 

Examples she cited include a Safe Harbor marina in South Carolina that is building new docks, slips, fuel infrastructure, and shower and laundry facilities. “They’re getting about $1.5 million from this program in a federal match,” Hoyt says. “Another good example is in Florida, the Melbourne Riverwalk Marina. That’s the Florida Fish and Wildlife service partnering with the marina to build out just under 2,000 feet of floating dockage, and creating some marina improvements like Wi-Fi, electricity and access to restaurants.”

All states will get some funding from that program, and bigger projects can compete for even more of the allocated cash, Hoyt says. Overall, boaters nationwide can expect to see similar projects being funded. “If you think about people out doing the Great Loop, these are the guest docks and the dinghy docks — all kinds of things that support that kind of travel,” Kennedy adds.

Yet another pot of cash in the infrastructure law will go to the Federal Lands Transportation Program, which is used to improve transportation infrastructure that runs to and through public land and waters. “From the boater’s perspective, this can mean parking areas that are really important for trailers around boat launches, and roads that provide access to boat launches,” Hoyt says.

About $12 billion from the infrastructure law will flow to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, she adds. It’s too soon to say exactly which projects the money will allow to be completed, but much of the work the Corps of Engineers does is on coastal and inland waterways, in and around reservoirs — generally speaking, in places that recreational boaters like to be. “We’re going to see benefits from that somehow,” Hoyt says. “There’s a big backlog of projects. It’s an agency that’s been underfunded.”

Yet more of the money that the infrastructure law authorizes will fund the Clean Vessel Act, Kennedy says. It includes programs that keep pumpout facilities up and running, and that lead to the installation of new pumpout facilities. “The states apply for the grants, and they work with private marinas and state parks, installing floating restaurants on lakes — they can use CVA money for that,” Kennedy says. “It’s keeping that whole ecosystem funded and working.”

Boating safety programs will also benefit from the infrastructure law, he adds. Some of the money will flow into state-level commissions that can use it for things such as enforcement of boating-under-the-influence laws, search-and-rescue operations and more. Kennedy says even more benefits to boaters will come from the infrastructure law as specific projects are identified at various agencies that are still deciding how to use the cash they were allotted. “There’s definitely more money for dredging,” he says as one example, “although we can’t tell yet where that will happen.”

This type of funding doesn’t happen overnight, the lobbyists say. It has taken years of effort for industry groups to help lawmakers understand the economic impact of boating, and to see the reasons marine infrastructure should be included in conversations about traditional infrastructure. And the Covid-19 pandemic, following much of that lobbying, pushed lawmakers’ level of understanding even higher. Just as Americans from all walks of life flocked to boating as a safe and fun escape, an increased number of lawmakers had personal experiences that helped them realize the importance of being able to get out into the fresh air by way of the water.

“The societal and health benefits, those have been considered a nice thing to have in your community, but this became a critical part of people’s lives,” Hoyt says. “It really helped to reinforce the urgency of Americans having a good, safe, accessible opportunity to get outside and recreate.”

Hoyt, Kennedy and others are gearing up to continue lobbying for more boating-related funding of all kinds. “We’re not just looking to maintain the access that we have now,” Hoyt says. “We’re looking at the millions of new people who have come into recreation across the board — camping, fishing, all the different activities — and we’re building out to improve the access sites and accommodate those users.” 

This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.

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