A new version of a critical piece of federal legislation affecting ports nationwide could provide the ports of Tacoma and Seattle a small slice of the $800 million the federal government collects yearly from importers who use American ports.
The money, just $25 million, is nonetheless significant because for the first time so-called "donor ports" such as Tacoma and Seattle will be able to share in the money collected by the Harbor Maintenance Tax.
Those ports are called "donor ports" because historically goods passing through those ports generated a large share of the Harbor Maintenance Tax take, but the ports received little or no benefit from the tax.
Historically, most of the tax money went to East and Gulf Coast ports to dredge their rivers and waterways to keep them open for shipping. Because Tacoma and Seattle are naturally deep ports that need little dredging, they were ineligible to spend the tax money.
Under the new bill, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, passed out of the conference committee, port improvements other than dredging are eligible for federal funding. And the ports could also use the Harbor Maintenance money to provide shippers and importers rebates on their tax bills.
The Harbor Maintenance Tax, which averages a little more than $100 per container imported through U.S. ports, has been the subject of much discussion in recent years. The West Coast ports, faced with competition from Canadian and Mexican ports that don't charge the tax, have wanted the tax reformed, but importers opposed any measure that would have imposed the tax on containers that entered the country on railroads or trucks.
The critical legislative compromise with Republicans was sponsored by Washington Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. To get the $25 million set aside, Democrats agreed to designate a like amount for improvement of port facilities serving energy exports. Most of those ports are located in the South and in Texas.
The news of the compromise was greeted enthusiastically by port commissioners in Puget Sound.
"For nearly three decades, the U.S. tax code has put Puget Sound ports at a competitive disadvantage to other ports in North America," said Port of Tacoma Commission President Clare Petrich. "For the first time in the history of the Harbor Maintenance Tax, the needs of natural deep water harbors like the Port of Tacoma, which have received little or no benefit from the tax, have been acknowledged."