Merkley, Sullivan Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Help Struggling Ports Stay Afloat Amid Coronavirus Crisis

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK), who serves as the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce’s Subcommittee on Security, teamed up today to introduce legislation to help ports weather the coronavirus pandemic and future disasters. The bipartisan Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief Act (MTSERA) would establish a first-of-its-kind comprehensive maritime emergency relief authority to provide critical financial assistance so the U.S. Maritime Transportation System remains functional and reliable in the event of a national emergency or natural disaster.

“Ports are the lifeblood of rural economies up and down Oregon’s coast and along the Columbia River,” said Merkley. “Unfortunately, our maritime industry is not immune from the economic destruction being caused by the coronavirus, spelling serious trouble for our families that rely on ports for their livelihoods. This urgently needed legislation would deliver critical resources to these affected communities, and help them weather this pandemic and future national emergencies.”

“This pandemic has been especially hard on the businesses in Alaska, and throughout the country, that rely on the maritime transportation system for a large part of their annual revenue,” said Sullivan. “With all major cruise ships voyages stopped, our ports, shipyards, and hard-working Alaska longshoremen are all facing tremendous losses. This new grant program would provide much needed financial relief to sustain these vital industries, which are critical economic components in coastal communities all across Alaska.”

Since the coronavirus crisis began, many sources of revenue for ports have critically declined or completely vanished—from suspended cruise line operations and plummeting demand for recreational vehicle rentals, to fewer visitors and day fees from people visiting ports’ public parks and marinas and canceled fishing trips. Ports are simultaneously facing unexpected sanitation supply costs necessary to protect workers and customers from the coronavirus.

The Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief Act (MTSERA) would help ports mitigate that lost revenue and unexpected costs by allowing the Maritime Administration (MARAD) to provide emergency federal grants to ports. The grants provided by MARAD could pay for ports’ operating and overhead costs involved with emergency response operations, cleaning, sanitizing, janitorial services, staffing, workforce retention, paid leave, procurement of protective health equipment, debt service payments, and infrastructure repair projects, among other essential needs.

In the event of natural disasters, the emergency relief authority could also be invoked to allow MARAD to award grants to help repair or replace damaged equipment, facilities, and shore infrastructure.

Today’s announcement follows the July 9, 2020, introduction of the MTSERA in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR-4) and Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY-18). The Senators and Congressmen plan to push for the inclusion of this legislation or similar provisions in upcoming coronavirus relief legislation.