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Published: Monday, 4/16/2012

Support small harbors

Ohio was among the nation’s top 10 states for recreational boating last year; a record 426,674 watercraft were registered in the state. Such boating generates $3.5 billion a year in revenue and supports the equivalent of 26,000 full-time jobs.

So the state should get behind proposed federal legislation that would require Congress to dedicate the $1.6 billion that commercial shippers put into the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund each year to Great Lakes dredging and maintenance projects. That’s where the fees are supposed to go but, because of Washington’s budget games, the fund’s $6 billion balance exists only on paper.

Meanwhile, there is a $200 million backlog of work in the Great Lakes region. Of 15 federal harbors and channels that are down to four feet of water or less, six are in Michigan and three in Ohio.

Along with recreational boating, the regional economic impact of commercial shipping is huge. U.S.-flagged Great Lakes operators moved 93.8 million tons of cargo in 2011, up 5.7 percent over 2010. Twelve million tons of cargo came through the Port of Toledo.

But drops in lake levels have put the recreation-tourism industry at risk. Keeping the federal shipping channel open to large freighters requires additional action as well. Last summer, a Great Lakes cruise ship — part of an industry that wants to expand in the region — couldn’t even get its passengers to Michigan’s Mackinac Island without putting them on a smaller boat.

If the dredging pace doesn’t pick up soon, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates that 30 more shallow-draft Great Lakes harbors could join the list of those with four feet of water or less. A bill that would address the situation, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), is especially important to Michigan, which has 69 federal channels and harbors.

But Ohio would benefit as well. Private marinas do their own dredging and maintenance. But Phil Miller, resource planning administrator for the Ohio Division of Watercraft, notes that state projects are tied to federal navigation channels whenever possible. The recently completed upgrade of the Cullen Park boat ramp in Toledo’s Point Place was a more-attractive competitor for state grant money because of its proximity to the federal channel.

There’s a distinction between recreational dredging and the Corps’ mandate to keep navigational channels open for commerce. Yet the needs of a multitude of watercraft, from small fishing boats to sailboats with large keels to cruise ships, all deserve attention.

Proponents argue that money collected to pay for maintenance dredging at smaller federal harbors could meet these needs without infringing on commercial activity of large ships. But that would require Congress to stop diverting money from the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to other uses.

That money was meant for navigational purposes, and should be dedicated to them. Ohio officials should get behind Senator Levin’s bill.



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