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Gulf coast renewal

Clayton says shipping fee would
help rebuild Gulf's port cities



By Mark J. Clayton
Reprinted with permission from May 6, 2006 New Orleans Times-Picayune
Copyright © 2006, The Times-Picayune. All rights reserved.

In the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane season, many of us feel a sense of foreboding, because we suspect that the devastation is merely a harbinger of things to come. What will be the consequences of the next hurricane? How can we set aside the resources to recover from another such blow?

The devastation wrought by Hurricanes Dennis, Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma is consistent with what scientists have warned is a consequence of global warming. Coupled with rising sea levels, longer, stronger hurricane seasons threaten to make much of the Gulf Coast inhospitable to civilization.

Abandonment of Gulf Coast cities, however, is not an option. The Gulf Coast ports are of critical economic importance to the nation. Using 2003 statistics, of the 10 largest U.S. ports for foreign trade, only New York and Long Beach are not on the Gulf Coast. That year, well over 1 billion tons of shipping passed through Gulf Coast ports.

This shipping benefits the entire nation. All agriculture and manufacturing products throughout the vast Mississippi basin are dependent on the Gulf Coast ports for export. The entire nation depends on the imports that enter through these same ports.

Although the risk of utter catastrophe in New Orleans is perhaps most obvious, all Gulf Coast ports share vulnerability to hurricanes, and the destruction of any of them could cripple the U.S. economy. It makes sense to pool our resources across the nation to secure the Gulf Coast ports. A Gulf Coast Renewal Fee on all shipping that enters or exits the nation through Gulf Coast ports would be a fair, broad-based way to protect this critical region from destruction.

The amount of a fee must be set by economists, politicians, and development experts. However, with 1 billion tons of shipping annually through these ports, a $10 per ton fee would raise $10 billion annually. When considered over the decades that recovery will require, this fee could provide an enormous fund for recovery. It could also be a very significant resource for funding prevention and preparation actions.

The funds would then be spent to strengthen the municipal infrastructure of the cities.

The federal, state and local governments would build levees, river outlets, port structures and other public works directly affecting the security of shipping. However, the ports are not merely docks, cranes, railroads and highways, but are communities of people. The people needed to serve the ports require housing, shopping districts, water, electricity, sewerage, transportation, and recreational facilities.

They also require top-flight schools; they must be well-educated so they understand the complex ecological and engineering principles needed to sustain the fragile Gulf Coast environment.

It would be utter folly to entrust stewardship of this vital region either to absentee rulers or to a poorly educated, desperately poor local polity. Care must be taken to assure that funds raised for Gulf Coast security benefit the people of the Gulf Coast.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and "Rising Tide" author John M. Barry have suggested that a fee be assessed on Gulf of Mexico oil production. Their idea is to use the funds to pay for improvement to New Orleans levees and to preserve South Louisiana wetlands that serve as a natural cushion to storm surges.

In my opinion, however, we should address security throughout the Gulf Coast region, rather than just New Orleans. We should employ a broader base for revenue generation, and, because of our collective dependence upon the Gulf Coast ports, spread the cost indirectly across the entire nation.

Such a fee should be applied at a federal level. No port could then obtain an unfair competitive advantage by ignoring its share of recovery costs. Every port would receive increased security against a danger that is highly unpredictable in the short term but inevitable in the long run. In some sense, the fee is not a tax but an insurance premium.

Economically, securing the Gulf Coast is imperative. Politically, the states of the Gulf Coast constitute a tenth of the senators and over a sixth of the representatives. Most importantly, achieving sustainable communities in the Gulf Coast region is the right thing to do. With a Gulf Coast Renewal Fee applied to shipping throughout the region, we can collect funds to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change. We would then have a chance to produce Gulf Coast communities that will be a shining example of civilization in harmony with nature.

. . . . . . .

Mark J. Clayton is executive associate dean of the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University and a native of New Orleans. His e-mail address is

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