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Transportation bill: winners and losers

The long-awaited transportation bill emerged from a House/Senate Conference Committee last Thursday. In order to get it passed and signed by President Obama by a Friday deadline, the House waived its three-day “reading requirement” and the 599-page bill, with whatever the conferees decided to put in it, became law.

We’ve been focused on this bill because it contains significant provisions for boating. After nine previous short-term extensions, Congress has finally produced a two-year, $109 billion bill that offers some stability and predictability. Now that we’re able to begin reading the final bill, it appears we have some big wins, if not everything we wanted. Here are some winners and losers as I can dig them out of the bill:

WINNER: Full reauthorization of the Sport Fish Restoration & Boating Safety Trust Fund (aka Wallop-Breaux). Our top priority, this provides some $600 million that directly impacts boating and fishing in many ways ranging from infrastructure grants to expanded fishing opportunities to boating safety programs. We can feel some disappointment in that this fund had traditionally been reauthorized for five-year periods. Still, full reauthorization through 2014 is a major victory given today’s political realities in Washington. Dealers were asked to push their congressional representatives for support of full reauthorization and it worked. Put it in the win column.

WINNER: The Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund is a reality. Ever since the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that impacted the five surrounding states, there has been a move to designate the resulting fines and penalties for restoration along the coast. Now, 80 percent of all administrative and civil penalties paid by all responsible parties will go into this new trust fund and be available, without further appropriation or fiscal-year limitation, for rebuilding the Gulf Coast. While it is not yet known how much that will be, estimates run as high as more than $2 billion. Specifically, the funds will be used for restoration of natural resources, fisheries, marine and wildlife habitat and beaches; mitigation of damage to fish and wildlife; infrastructure benefitting economy and ecology; promotion of tourism including recreational fishing and consumption of Gulf seafood, among other similar activities. For the marine industry along the Gulf Coast, it’s good news for the future.

LOSER: The proposal requiring the full Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund be used for dredging needs didn’t make it. But it wasn’t a total loss. The final bill does include a “Sense of Congress” provision calling for increased (unspecified) spending, but fumbles the ball over to the administration to propose the increases in its budget request. Created by Congress in 1986, the fund takes in about $1 billion annually. Yearly spending, however, has been only about half, resulting in more than $6 billion accumulating now in the fund. It has clearly been used for budget offset rather than spent for its intended purpose. While the fund is designated primarily for dredging commercial ports and channels (used by recreational boaters, too) there is a vocal coalition active on the Great Lakes to expand the use of the fund for dredging of recreational harbors, citing the huge economic impact of recreational boating as justification. On the plus side: It marks the first time Congress has enacted legislation recognizing the inadequacy of fund spending and the first time this kind of provision has been included in a surface transportation authorization bill. So there’s more work to be done, but we’re in a stronger position than we were before last Friday.

WINNER OR LOSER? In the ongoing controversy between Illinois and other Great Lakes states over the threat of an Asian carp invasion, the transportation bill also includes a provision directing the Army Corps of Engineers to accelerate its feasibility study on preventing carp from entering Lake Michigan through Illinois waterways and potentially destroying the $7 billion annual Great Lakes fishery. Believed to have been inserted in the bill by Michigan’s senators, it pointedly suggests a permanent “hydrological separation” between Lake Michigan and waterways in Illinois. Potentially, it could lead to closing the only western water route out of the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River used by many recreational boats and some commercial traffic. The bill, however, clearly states that such a project should be considered if the Army Corps Chief of Engineers determines it is necessary. The report is not expected until sometime next year. This battle will continue.



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