Elizabeth Hanford Dole, nominee for secretary of transportation, said yesterday that the Reagan administration plans again to propose user fees to pay for expanding U.S. ports to handle the huge coal-carrying ships that are expected to dominate the world market.
Dole, appearing at a hearing before the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee as part of the confirmation process, said the port situation "is of concern to me. I hope we will be able to move forward in legislation on user fees; the administration will be looking to send" a proposal to Capitol Hill.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who had raised the issue, responded, "Meaning no criticism, but this administration has not been the best at sending up legislation."
For the past two years, port authorities, Congress and the administration have attempted to reach agreement on a user fee structure to pay for widening and deepening channels of major ports to the 60-foot depths required by the new coal ships.
Traditionally, channel dredging has been done by the Army Corps of Engineers with appropriations from the general fund. That approach is no longer regarded as acceptable and the Office of Management and Budget has proposed fees that recover all the cost of dredging.
Ports disagree over how user fees could be levied fairly against both small and large ports.
The argument is a classic transportation subsidy issue: large ports generate a lot of cargo that is easily taxed but do not wish to share their revenues with the smaller ports, which do not handle as much volume but still need big dollars to keep their channels open.
As the debate has raged, port development has ground to a halt while European ports are dredging to depths of as much as 70 feet.
As Moynihan said, "The Europeans are going to make long-term contracts" to import coal, and it could come from South Africa or Australia as well as the United States.
If U.S. ports cannot handle the efficent super-colliers and other ports can, the United States stands to lose substantial exports.
President Reagan, in his State of the Union message Tuesday, said, "It is time for us to get together and enact a port modernization bill."
The American Association of Port Authorities welcomed the president's call, but reiterated its position that port facilities, which are financed by the ports, are in excellent condition. The association contends that the government still has a role to play in guaranteeing channel access to those facilities.
The user fee concept is one that the administration has applied to the air traffic system through airline ticket and fuel taxes, to highway repair through the gasoline and truck weight taxes and to barge operators through diesel fuel taxes.
In response to other questions, Dole, whose confirmation appears certain, said:
* The administration will support but will not initiate legislation to ease the 55 mph speed limit.
* Some of the new highway and mass transit money generated by the 5-cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax will be available for new rail transit systems. "Full consideration will be given to Houston's expected application for funds to help with a subway," she said to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.).
* Good progress is being made in generating highway projects with the new gasoline tax money. "Our major goal is to move quickly," she said.