Stressing the importance of Gulf Coast ports to international trade and the economic impact that Mississippi River commerce has on the region, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Louisiana port officials pushed the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget on Monday to support money for maritime projects in the state.
The election-year visit, prompted by a request from Landrieu, D-La., after Shaun Donovan took over the budget office this summer, was intended to highlight the importance of funding projects connected with maritime trade as the administration considers its spending priorities for the coming year.
Donovan pledged to be a partner in that effort and to work on funding the region’s needs, though he stopped short of specific commitments.
“One of the most important things we can do is grow our infrastructure,” Donovan said as he and other officials took a brief boat tour of the wharves that line the riverfront in the Lower Garden District.
Landrieu said federal investment in harbors and waterways in Louisiana would mean economic growth and, in turn, increased tax revenues.
Framing additional spending in those areas as an investment, she said, “We’re not looking for a patron; we’re looking for a partner.”
Donovan took a similar tack in arguing for more money for infrastructure.
“We have too many people looking at spending and missing the point that this is investment in our nation’s future,” he said.
Donovan’s visit comes as Landrieu is in the midst of a re-election campaign that has heavily focused on her seniority in Washington, her positions as chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee and the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee and her claim that she can leverage those assets to benefit Louisiana.
Landrieu has received support from some prominent figures in the maritime and energy industries in her race against U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy and Rob Maness, both Republicans.
Among other projects, the maritime industry is looking for federal money to pay to dredge about 30 miles of the Mississippi River downriver of Venice. Doing so would open up the next 140 miles of the waterway to the largest ships that will be able to pass through the expanded Panama Canal, said Sean Duffy, executive director of the Big River Coalition, an organization that advocates for funding for dredging operations in the Mississippi River.
Money for that effort could come from fees and taxes already imposed on maritime traffic. That money was intended to cover such costs but traditionally has been diverted for other uses.
That could change with the signing this summer of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which mandates that an increasing percentage of the $1.8 billion collected in maritime taxes each year go directly to projects aimed at improving shipping infrastructure.
Officials stressed the importance of shipping to the state’s economy.
Ports and associated industries account for about one in five jobs in Louisiana and make up about a quarter of the state’s economy, Ports Association of Louisiana Executive Director Joe Accardo said.
At the same time, officials said, the amount of money being put into deepening harbors and waterways is at its lowest per capita levels since the 1950s.
“The great challenge is to get that $1.8 billion a year invested correctly,” Landrieu said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.