(Hickman, KY September 30, 2011) - Senator Rand Paul and Congressman Ed Whitfield came to Hickman on Thursday, September 29th for a listening session on the problem that Elvis Stahr Harbor is facing. Joining them were representatives from the First District in Kentucky, Sen. Ken Winters and Rep. Steven Rudy and Tennessee State Representative Bill Sanderson. Fulton County Judge David Gallagher served as moderator.
The problem is simple. Elvis Stahr Harbor, a/k/a the Port of Hickman, silts up. In the past two years, since the last dredging, it has silted up to the point that a handout by the Army Corps of Engineers states under FY 2011 Activities that “some commercial tows have not been able to navigate the harbor because of increased sedimentation.”
The last dredging was in 2009 using federal stimulus funds. If dredging is performed yearly, it costs around $250,000. If not, the costs rise sharply. Dredging now will cost an estimated by the Corps to cost 2.4 million dollars. That money was not allocated in the administration’s budget. In 2010, only $39,600 was allotted to the Port. That dropped to $15,000 in 2011.
Dredging is an important issue to agriculture in the region. Sam Hancock, a local farmer, told the congressional delegation that if the port is lost that his transportation costs will rise by $25,000-$30,000. The next available port is Cairo, Illinois. That’s a long way from Fulton County on two lane highways.
Dredging was part of the routine presidential budget up until the year 2000. After that, Representative Whitfield got it funded with earmark funds. Now that Congress, including Whitfield, has taken a “no earmarks” pledge, funding has become problematic. Stimulus funds have run out and the Corps’ funding for the Memphis ports (there are ten) has been greatly reduced.
Funding for port maintenance is prioritized by tonnage passing through a port. Ports handling less than one million tons of cargo have a lower priority than those handling that amount and over. According to reports by shippers to the Corps at New Orleans, Hickman is well under one million tons. Records kept at the Port disagree. Local port officials say they have documentation for at least that much and half again as much.
Senator Paul suggested legislation amending the tonnage required to a lower amount. That would bring Hickman farther up the Corps To-Do list. However, one manager told the Senator that the port at Memphis which handles many times one million tons of cargo has also had funds cut to one third of what it once was.
Other speakers also emphasized the vital role the port has to the region.
Tammi Hutchison manages the ferry that crosses the Mississippi River at Hickman said that if the port should close, commuters who use their service will face a ninety mile drive rather than the one mile across the River.
Another speaker said that barge traffic is more cost effective because it moves 70 truckloads of materials per barge. If barge traffic is constricted, it will take 40,000 trucks to take up the slack. That will increase usage of fuel and decrease air quality.
The barge industry has offered to increase the tax it pays – if the money will go toward keeping their highways- the rivers – navigable. The congressmen agreed to take a look at the proposal.
Senator Paul seemed intent on blaming the Environmental Protection Agency for the Port’s problems. That has not been the case. However, one speaker said that work at Grand Rivers has been halted while a mussel study is conducted.
Paul also told those in the room that he agrees that earmarks should be banned. He said if he finds funds, they will come from some other program. When asked for increased funding, his standard reply is to ask the community what it will give up in one area to increase funding in another.
Rep. Whitfield suggested that the time may have come for bonding for infrastructure projects. States and localities have mechanisms to bond for big projects. The federal government does not. Whitfield cited the Panama Canal expansion as an example of a bonding project that got off the ground quickly and is nearing completion.
No answers came out of the session, but Senator Paul and Rep. Whitfield spoke of working together to offer legislation to obtain the funds needed.
In the meantime, the silt continues to build up around Elvis Stahr Harbor.