Laura Richardson.
Laura Richardson. (Steven Georges / Staff Photographer)

As promised during a recent visit here, Congresswoman Laura Richardson has introduced a bill that could free up some $5 billion meant for harbor upkeep but routinely hoarded by the federal government for other uses.

The legislation, known as the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Reform Act, closes loopholes that have allowed federal authorities to stockpile some $5 billion in tax revenue meant for projects like dredging and routine maintenance of the nation's seaports.

The issue has become a growing point of contention in recent years as port authorities struggle to fund channel deepening and dredging projects needed to accommodate the globe's largest megaships.

A 2008 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that while the fee - known formally as the Harbor Maintenance Tax - generates more than $1.5 billion annually, only $900 million or so is being spent.

The GAO report also revealed that federal authorities have diverted funds to help balance the federal budget - in violation of the 1986 law establishing the tax.

Meanwhile, in Long Beach and Los Angeles, port authorities grumble that they're routinely denied federal aid amid a huge backlog of infrastructure projects that include dredging and bridge replacement.

"(The bill) allows for the deepening of channels surrounding ports and it's important because it enables larger ships to navigate through our ports...and avoid cargo diversion to Canada and the Panama Cannel," Richardson said in an e-mail.

Currently, the Harbor Maintenance Tax is assessed at 0.125 percent of the cargo's estimated value, with funds directed to the Army Corps of Engineers budget, which handles port dredging in all major U.S. seaports.

Richardson's bill carries a huge potential impact in Long Beach and Los Angeles, which combined form America's most important trade gateway with the world.

Another Richardson bill, the Movement Act of 2009, would increase the harbor tax by 0.3125 of one percentage point, to 0.4375 percent, with all additional revenue placed in a protected fund dedicated to infrastructure, environmental and security improvements.

Under the proposal, the harbor maintenance tax on a 40-foot container stuffed with computers valued at $50,000, for example, would jump from about $62 to $219.

Of the estimated $2.7 billion raised by the increase annually, 90 percent would go to infrastructure, 7 percent to environmental measures and 3 percent to increase security, Richardson said.

Cargo moved between U.S. ports and cargo originating in Canada and Mexico and brought to the U.S. would be exempt under the act.

Both bills are under review.

Greenbelt proposal

A greenbelt connecting Chavez and Drake parks near the Port of Long Beach's eastern border is in its final planning stages, with a public hearing on the project set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

The idea is to link the two downtown parks - which are separated by a few blocks - with bicycle routes, wetlands trails, jogging paths and a greenbelt stretching from downtown Long Beach to Anaheim Street.

"It's going to be a major waterfront greenbelt and the biggest park space in Long Beach outside of El Dorado (park)," said Councilman Robert Garcia, whose First District includes the area affected. "This is the last meeting before we get into the final design phase, so we really want everyone to get in there and share their ideas."

The hearing is 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Drake Park Community Center, 951 Maine Ave. For more information, call Garcia's office at 562-570-5843 or visit www.longbeach.gov/

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Harbor cruises

Port authorities Monday approved spending up to $5,000 to host a pair of narrated harbor cruises for guests of councilmembers Tonia Reyes Uranga and Gerrie Schipske in mid-August.

The cruises on Aug. 12 and 13 allow Schipske and Uranga to host up to 150 people each for a tour aboard a port-chartered yacht. Food and drinks are included, and most councilmembers request at least one such cruise annually. The port always picks up the tab.

While councilmembers pick guests for such tours, the port hosts similar cruises for the general public, usually in the summer and fall.

Schipske represents East Long Beach's 5th District, while Uranga's 7th District borders the port on the Westside.

kristopher.hanson@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1466