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Non-maritime interests seeking harbor transportation grants

MADISON -- Commercial port operators are steamed about a proposed rule change that would allow harbor assistance grants to be used to repair dock walls and other facilities owned by non-maritime interests such as condominium developers.

MADISON -- Commercial port operators are steamed about a proposed rule change that would allow harbor assistance grants to be used to repair dock walls and other facilities owned by non-maritime interests such as condominium developers.

City of Superior Planning Director Jason Serck said the change is unprecedented and would result in too many people chasing too few Department of Transportation dollars.

"In my opinion, it's not a good idea. It will open up (state grants) to a lot of players, and money is tight now. We feel it should be used for commercial waterfront users, dredging projects for elevators, dock wall repairs for industrial users," Serck said.

Sereck is backed by members of the Wisconsin Commercial Ports Association, who submitted testimony Friday in opposition to changes in DOT Rule 28. WCPA President Dean Hean of Green Bay said "The funding was established to purely enhance commercial transportation of cargo. This goes against the whole foundation of why the harbor assistance program was created. It's a complete change."

Proponents of the rule change say it's needed to increase navigation safety in the state's harbors.

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"It is a safety issue. If a wharf collapses and sediment clogs the shipping channel, then it affects the commercial use of that port regardless if that wharf or dock is used by a grain terminal or a recreational boater," said Tim Huck, Manitowoc's harbor master.

Manitowoc is trying to redevelop its waterfront from industrial to recreational and industrial use. Huck would like to use some state money to replace a 100-year-old dock wall and add boat slips.

Told that no dock collapse has ever closed a Wisconsin port, he said deteriorating dock walls like those in Superior eventually will fail and will be more expensive to repair in the future than today.

Huck further said using DOT grants to develop recreational boating facilities isn't unlike repairing roads that all motorists use from fees collected from commercial truckers.

"There's an economic development aspect to this that is a benefit to all waterfront communities. Other ports like the city of Manitowoc are trying to diversity its economy and can do so by adding to their capacity to serve the recreational boater," he said.

Funding for harbor assistance grants will increase from $5 million in the current biennium to $12.7 million in the next, but it still isn't enough to meet the needs of the14 qualifying commercial ports around the state that have projects on the drawing boards totaling $70 million.

In Superior, the grants are put to use to ensure commercial transportation is available. General Mills recently completed a dock project partly funded with a $1.8 million harbor assistance grant. Hallett Dock No. 8 used a $2 million harbor assistance grant to finance dredging and repairs to 800 feet of dock wall. In July, two more dock projects will come before the Superior City Council: CLM, a specialty limestone manufacturer, and Cenex Harvest States, a grain cooperative, Serck said.

Businesses put up 20 percent of the harbor assistance grant and look to state funding in order to make them happen, he said.

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"It's a competitive ball game on the Great Lakes with grain shipments and taconite shipments. We need a pool of money there so we can stay competitive with other shipping destinations," Serck said.

Lawrence Kieck, DOT's harbor grants manager, said the impetus for the Trans 28 rule change came from the DOT Secretary's office. Kieck will forward all the input he's received on the Trans 28 proposed change, along with his responses, to Secretary Frank Busalacchi, who can table it or send changes to the Legislature.

State Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, said Friday that he is seeking additional information about whether to expand the eligibility for harbor assistance grants to non-transportation users. Jauch said any modification of the rule would come under legislative oversight either through a transportation committee or the Joint Committees of Administrative Rules that he chairs.

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