The last time Congress passed a long-term transportation bill was in 2004. It expired in 2009 and, since then, Congress has kept programs going through a series of nine short-term extensions with the current three-month extension set to expire Saturday night.
It appeared earlier this week that Congress might finally be ready to pass a longer-term transportation bill, specifically a two-year reauthorization. If it happens — and these days who can predict whether Congress will really get anything done — it would be good news for boating in two ways.
First, included in the transportation bill is a reauthorization of the Sport Fish Restoration & Boating Trust Fund. As I have emphasized before (see Dealer Outlook, Feb. 14, 2012) this fund provides up to $600 million annually for myriad programs that benefit boating and fishing.
The money comes from the 18.3 cents per gallon federal gas tax on powerboat and small-engine fuels and certain excise taxes on fishing equipment. Its value to boating and fishing cannot be overstated. And while a two-year extension is certainly less desirable than a five-year reauthorization, it’s far better than the short extensions that offer no long-term continuity.
Second, also in the transportation bill is the “Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast Act of 2011.” (Yes, I’m laughing, too.) Its long name might be funny, but its content is serious and will positively impact the marine industry along the Gulf Coast for years to come. Call it the “Restore Act.”
According to David White, the National Wildlife Federation’s director of its Gulf restoration campaign: “More than two years after BP’s disastrous oil spill, Congress is finally getting around to legislation that would begin to restore America’s Gulf Coast and its marine resources. The Restore Act would ensure that 80 percent of the fines and penalties paid by BP and others responsible for the disaster are used to restore the natural resources and economies of the Gulf coastal communities.”
No one knows yet how much money that will represent before it’s all over, but it will likely amount to billions. And therein is the problem. When billions are coming in, you can expect all sorts of attempts in Washington to divert it to who-knows-what. This legislation designates these funds for the five affected states (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.)
It’s the right thing to do. There’s no question BP’s spill put a huge hurt on boat dealers, marina operators, recreational and commercial fishing and tourism around the Gulf. Moreover, we can’t lose sight of the fact that it destroyed critical coastal habitats that are necessary to sustain fish and shellfish. The Gulf reportedly provides one-third of the nation’s seafood, including 75 percent of shrimp and 60 percent of oyster production. Equally important, recreational boating and fishing just in Florida, for example, combined with tourism activities, account for 1.4 million jobs and an estimated $100 billion in economic activity for the Sunshine State.
But the future success of fishing and boating clearly depends on healthy coastal waters and estuaries around the Gulf. Truth is, the damage the BP spill has done to so many businesses and so much critical habitat can never be fully restored. Still, we must mitigate and rebuild wherever is possible for the long-term good of the Gulf Coast and passing the Restore Act will be a critical step.
I’m looking for a win all around by Saturday.