WASHINGTON – A representative for a Pine Bluff business testified before a U.S. House subcommittee in Washington on Wednesday about the key role that ports, harbors and inland waterways play in communities and their economies.

The hearing also addressed the importance of full utilization of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for its authorized purposes – namely, the maintenance dredging of authorized commercial coastal and inland harbors.

Phyllis Harden testified before the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment on behalf of Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel Co.

“The Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel Company is a fourth-generation family-owned business that has been in operation for over 100 years,” Harden said. “We are headquartered in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and have operations in Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama. We specialize in crushed stone and riprap delivered by barge on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, marine construction and transportation, commercial sand dredging, and ready-mix concrete and hot mix asphalt.

“We directly employ around 500 people and generate business that supports many more. I also currently serve as the Vice-Chair of The Pine Bluff-Jefferson County Port Authority and serve on the Board of Directors for Dredging Contractors of America and the National Waterways Conference.

“Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel has been in business for over a century in part because of opportunities the nation’s inland waterway transportation system provides. When transporting bulk commodities, such as aggregates, the inland waterways presents the most economical and environmentally friendly form of transportation. In fact, for every single barge of aggregates we ship, this equals 70 trucks that are not on the road. In 2017, there were more than 550 million tons transported on the inland waterways system valued at $220 billion.

“Of that tonnage, almost 80 million tons were aggregates, which is 14 percent of the total tonnage moved on the system. Many people do not realize the importance of the inland waterways system because they are not stuck in traffic with barges, or regularly held up by barges at railroad crossings. But what most people don’t realize is that if you are near a navigable waterway, there is good chance that the aggregates used to build key parts of your community were most likely transported via water at some point. In fact, this last year, Nashville, Tennessee’s boom in building required four million tons of concrete shipped via the waterway, which equates to 160,000 18-wheeler trucks.”

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) on Wednesday gave the following opening statement at the hearing, titled “The Cost of Doing Nothing: Why Full Utilization of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and Investment in our Nation’s Waterways Matter.”

Westerman is the lead Republican on the subcommittee.

“I’m happy we have such a diverse panel so that we can gain their perspectives on the issues facing ports, harbors, and inland waterways, as well as their stakeholders and users. I especially want to thank Ms. Phyllis Harden for her participation here today. She is a constituent of mine who was recently inducted into the Arkansas River Hall of Fame.

“The needs of our ports, harbors, and inland waterways are substantial, and they continue to grow.

“Oceangoing vessels carry more merchandise trade to and from the United States than all other modes of transportation combined. My home state of Arkansas is third in the Nation in the number of inland waterway miles – one of only 24 states in the United States to have the unique resource of inland waterways. Major products that move on Arkansas waterways include grains, steel, fertilizers, petroleum and petroleum products, aggregates, paper, and wood products, among others. This means there is a very good chance that everything from the bread for your sandwiches to the components of your car were carried at some point on a waterway.

“Yet more often than not, our ports and inland waterways are not maintained to their fully authorized widths and depths, severely jeopardizing our way of life, competitiveness, American jobs, and the communities that depend on them.

“In order to address the maintenance of our ports, Congress enacted the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) for the purpose of covering dredging costs. The tax is directly levied on importers and domestic shippers using coastal or inland ports, and deposited into a trust fund within the Treasury. However, for too long more tax revenue has been collected annually than Congress has appropriated. And because of this fact, a balance has been accruing that currently stands at approximately 10 billion dollars – enough to address our currently authorized maintenance needs if spent down. That Congress has allowed this to persist, as our needs only continue to grow, represents a problem in dire need of a solution.

“This Committee has twice, in recent years, passed measures that would dedicate the taxes to their intended purposes – and I look forward to continue working to solve this problem. But it is not just our ports that are in need, but also the structures that support the inland waterways system which require maintenance, repair, and upgrade. Over half of the inland waterways structures are more than 50 years old, and nearly 40 percent are more than 70 years old. Many of these projects are approaching the end of their design lives.

“The upper Mississippi alone, from St. Louis to the headwaters in Minnesota's Lake Itasca, generates almost $600 billion in annual economic activity and is used to transport 60 percent of all grain products in America, the world's number-one grain producer.

“As the amount of goods traveling on the inland system is expected to increase by more than 20 percent by 2050, we must continue to invest in this vital system – the risk of failure is too great. It is critical that as we work to address our infrastructure challenges this Congress, our ports, harbors, and inland waterways are not left behind. I look forward to hearing the witnesses’ perspectives and solutions to address our water resources infrastructure needs.”