THE DREDGING CONVERSATION IN WASHINGTON

By William Kalec

Apparently, pancakes and policy do go together.

On Jan. 29, 2018, Port of South Louisiana Executive Director Paul Aucoin spoke at the River Parishes Economic Development Breakfast held in Washington, D.C. In attendance were members of the River Region Economic Development Initiative, including St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom, St. James Parish President Timothy Roussel and St. Charles Parish Executive Director of Technology and Communication Anthony Ayo, along with members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation and Louisiana’s U.S. Senators.

Also in attendance were Louisiana State Senator Gary Smith, Louisiana State Rep. Clay Schexnayder, Lutcher Mayor Patrick St. Pierre, plus Don Pierson and Brad Lambert of  Louisiana Economic Development .  

“You never pass up an opportunity to meet with your legislators in person and get the chance to speak with them face-to-face,” Aucoin says. “And this is a time when they’re all together and expecting to meet with us. They’re receptive, their staff is receptive, and it’s just a great chance to personally thank them for all the work they do,  and to reinforce the importance of what we do down here and the best ways to keep this region strong economically.”

Other speakers touched on a variety of issues such as flood protection, coastal restoration and flood management, and ensuring the educational infrastructure is in place to create skilled job applicants capable of handling the technical requirements of open positions within the Port District.

Aucoin focused much of his conversations on revenue collected from the Harbor Maintenance Tax and the critical importance of using those funds to dredge the Mississippi River Ship Channel from its current depth of 45 feet to 50 feet.

 “If you ask me, there’s one big issue: Dredging the mouth of the [Mississippi] River,” Aucoin said. “So that’s what I went to Washington to speak about. ‘We have a plan. Please help us adopt it, now.’ It’s a plan that’s very generous [to Louisiana ports], and now hopefully Congress will enact the plan now that all the ports are in agreement.”

Aucoin accented the importance of this union between ports along the river and Louisiana’s economic potential with this investment as well as the consequences to all if the project is not brought to successful completion and funded for appropriate maintenance. “Dredging is so vital. Not just for us, but for those 31 states that send materials down the River to us,” Aucoin continues. “If the mouth [of the Mississippi River] is clogged up, then they suffer from extra costs incurred. To us, it’s a no-brainer, but it never hurts to make everyone aware of it.”

Created in 1986 as part of The Water Resource Act, the Harbor Maintenance Tax places a 0.125 percent ad valorem-based fee on imports entering the country, and therefore taking advantage of the U.S. port system. Initially, money collected from the tax was designated to fund maritime maintenance and necessary projects, although in some years funds were deferred to pay down the national debt. In the last 15 years, funds collected from the tax has exceeded projections, creating a large surplus of funds — roughly $7 billion to $9 billion.  

Around the beginning of the year, Aucoin and every member of the American Association of Port Authorities agreed on a singular plan on how those surplus funds should be spent, and now it’s up to Congress to pass a bill that adopts that plan. So that’s why Aucoin, in every opportunity presented, talked to political influencers representing Louisiana and other states that benefit from maritime commerce on the Mississippi River about the importance of this dredging project and other dredging projects across the country.

“I will say, a lot of people understand the message of how important the Port System is to the country. But I’ll never stop spreading that message,” Aucoin said “The five ports here from Baton Rouge to the mouth of the [Mississippi] River are vital to our region but also vital to our state, and all the states. The mouth of the River being clogged up is a U.S. problem, not just a Louisiana problem.”