Lawmakers should back Murray-Cantwell bill

Puget Sound ports face an uphill battle when competing with British Columbia ports for inbound international cargo.

That’s because United States ports pay a harbor maintenance tax of 0.125 percent of the value of international cargo arriving at their docks.

The tax averages about $109 for every 40-foot metal container, and can climb as high as $200 on high-value cargo such as electronics.

A bill introduced by Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell would help level the playing field. It would levy a comparable tax on maritime cargo that is off-loaded at a Canadian port, but then enters the United States by land.

The bill also addresses another inequity in the 1986 Harbor Maintenance Tax legislation. The tax funds are used to help pay for dredging projects at U.S. ports. But the deepwater ports in Puget Sound, including Seattle and Tacoma, don’t require as much dredging as an East Coast or Gulf port, so they don’t benefit from the cargo tax.

The Murray-Cantwell bill, called the Maritime Goods Movement Act, would allow ports where the tax is collected to keep 15 percent of the receipts for environmental and maintenance projects, as well as 5 percent for inland projects.

That could be a useful source of funding for port-related projects designed to clean up and restore Puget Sound habitat and water quality.

The state’s entire Congressional delegation should stand behind the bill to correct inequities in port maritime business.

Powerful shipping and rail interests are likely to raise strong objections to the bill. And ports that have benefitted from this pot of federal funds for their dredging projects are likely to fight it, too.

Nevertheless, Congress should view the bill as a much more equitable way to distribute the Harbor Maintenance Tax while protecting port economies in Puget Sound and elsewhere.