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Senator's view: Well-maintained ports keep us competitive

The dredge B. Yetter lifts a load of silt, logs and water from the bay behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center in August 1998 when dredging was being done to make room for future cruise ships. Dredging remains critical to the port of Duluth-Superior. (File / News Tribune)

In the coming days, a little-

noticed but critically important measure for Duluth and all of Minnesota will become federal law.

The Water Resource and Reform Development Act, which recently passed both the House and Senate, will pay long-term dividends for the entire U.S. economy and for key Minnesota industries like mining, forestry and agriculture that rely on our nation’s waterways to move their products to markets around the world.

It has been almost seven years since Congress passed a water resources bill into law. In that time we have seen a growing backlog of dredging needs in our Great Lakes and along the Mississippi River. Our ports, shipping lanes, and locks and dams have become clogged with silt, forcing cargo ships and barges to carry their freight at less than capacity.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that America’s busiest ports operate at their full capacity less than 35 percent of the time due in part to inadequate dredging. That drives up shipping costs, increasing prices for consumers, and undercuts the competitiveness of American products worldwide.

That’s why, as a member of the Senate’s Great Lakes Task Force, I have been fighting for years to make sure this bill significantly expands our investments in the dredging on the Great Lakes and on the Mississippi River — Minnesota’s gateways to global trade.

Duluth is home to the largest freshwater port in the world. Keeping it and the entire Great Lakes properly dredged ensures shipments of Minnesota iron ore, farm and forestry products, and other goods can travel as efficiently as possible. The port supports thousands of jobs and is a key reason why so many of our state’s most important industries have thrived and remained globally competitive for generations.

The new Water Resource and Reform Development Act also will help more Minnesota agricultural goods get to market in barges along the Mississippi River. Leaders from our state’s farm and commodity groups have told me over and over that inadequate dredging and lock enhancement on this important waterway have combined to drive up their shipping costs as they move their products to ports downstream.

Money for dredging comes from cargo fees paid to the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. But over the years, changes in budget policies have allowed half of the money in the trust fund to be diverted to other, unrelated purposes.

That’s why I, along with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and my other colleagues from the Great Lakes states, made sure that practice is changed under the Water Resource and Reform Development Act. By 2025, every penny put into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund will be spent where it is supposed to be spent: on harbor maintenance and the dredging of shipping lanes.

The new law also explicitly makes the Great Lakes a top priority by directing a significant portion of any new money that comes into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund goes toward dredging Great Lakes waterways. We took this step because, with money tight, others in Congress wanted that money for other purposes.

Some of the best investments our nation can make are in the infrastructure that helps us move our goods and services. This expanded bipartisan effort to keep our waterways open and efficient not only will cut shipping costs for our producers but also go a long way toward creating and preserving jobs, expanding our economy, and keeping Minnesota and our nation competitive.

Al Franken represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.