GAO report looks at dredging at Lower Mississippi River ports

In late July, the General Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on dredging issues at 13 Lower Mississippi River ports between St. Louis and Baton Rouge, La.

The report, Inland Harbors: The Corps of Engineers Should Assess Existing Capabilities to Better Inform Dredging Decisions, reviewed the ports from 2010 through 2015. These ports primarily moved a mix of agricultural commodities (corn, soybeans, and rice), petroleum products, and crude materials (such as sand and gravel, among others). However, the ports varied, with some primarily moving grain, and others moving a variety of commodities. These ports also varied in tonnage transported, ranging from less than one million tons annually to more than 10 million tons per year.

A majority of the stakeholders interviewed by the GAO, as well as Army Corps of Engineers officials, said that funding constraints limit the Corps’ ability to fully dredge the 13 ports’ harbors, which can affect freight movement. According to local Corps officials, the agency received about $13.1 million of the $20.6 million needed to fully dredge the 13 ports’ harbors in fiscal year 2016. Some stakeholders told said that smaller ports are negatively affected by the Corps’ emphasis on the amount of cargo moved (measured in tons) when making decisions about which harbors to dredge, the GAO said.

Congress has directed the Corps to consider harbors’ significance and to conduct an assessment of harbors’ use and benefits — considering factors beyond tonnage — when considering the allocation of dredging funds. Corps officials said they have not conducted such an assessment due to funding constraints, and raised concerns about the cost-effectiveness of conducting such assessments. However, the Corps has developed some tools that may help it assess inland harbors’ significance, use, and benefits. For example, Corps officials explained that they have a tool that allows them to track the amount and type of cargo moving through harbors and to estimate the value of cargo at risk if a harbor loses depth. However, a Corps official noted that the “cargo-at-risk” metric was based on deep coastal harbors and would need to be adapted for inland harbors.

A senior Corps official agreed that it could be useful to inform Congress of the Corps’ existing tools and capabilities and the resources needed to adapt these tools and capabilities to address the statutory requirements related to allocating dredging funds.

Many of the stakeholders interviewed by the GAO said that before considering alternative-funding options, the federal government should make more use of the current mechanism for funding dredging: the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. Three other potential options for funding dredging — user fees, state and local contributions, and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (which currently funds new construction and major rehabilitation of locks and dams as well as other channel and waterway improvements) were discussed. Stakeholders said each faced challenges. In particular, they noted the financial effects of these options on users, state and local governments, and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. However, some stakeholders identified the benefits of using these options, such as benefits from industry paying user fees for its infrastructure use, and state and local governments contributing funds to meet the dredging needs of harbors in their jurisdiction.

The GAO recommended that the Corps inform Congress whether it can adapt its existing tools to address factors for allocating dredging funds from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and the resources needed to do so. The Corps concurred with the recommendation.

About the author

David Krapf

David Krapf has been editor of WorkBoat, the nation’s leading trade magazine for the inland and coastal waterways industry, since 1999. He is responsible for overseeing the editorial direction of the publication. Krapf has been in the publishing industry since 1987, beginning as a reporter and editor with daily and weekly newspapers in the Houston area. He also was the editor of a transportation industry daily in New Orleans before joining WorkBoat as a contributing editor in 1992. He has been covering the transportation industry since 1989, and has a degree in business administration from the State University of New York at Oswego, and also studied journalism at the University of Houston.

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