The new administration is set on a mission with the promise of a massive rehab of our outdated national infrastructures that includes roads, bridges, railways, airports and a few others that need to be brought to standards that meet our present-day technology.
Similar to what is being contemplated to address this country's internal infrastructures, the infrastructures for the recreational boating and sportfishing harbors and marinas also need to be addressed. Hundreds of marinas, breakwaters and mooring docks laced around the nation are near the end of their life cycle and are in need of rehabilitation. Harbor seawalls and seaway dredging to keep navigational channels open and accessible is also needed. A national boating study must be acquired to get an understanding of the current status of this fragile industry and its boaters.
At its zenith in 2008, recreational boating had amassed 12 million boat owners contributing an estimated $122 billion to the annual national economic impact. It has remained solvent and sustainable since then, bankrolled by governments in many coastal states to build and upkeep marinas for mooring and then dredge as needed along navigable waterways. No central authority is available to represent and advocate for their upkeep and management even though 88 million of the nation's citizens engage in recreational boating and sportfishing.
These figures are only estimates and were reached over time without a boating czar in charge. Such impressive numbers could not have come without governments' intervention to fund boating infrastructures. Private businesses cannot on their own create profitable and affordable recreational boating infrastructures. Boating would become too expensive of a pastime and lifestyle to undertake by many, especially the Millennials prepared to take over boating from their aging Baby Boomer parents. Funding sources, state and local governments with their home rule powers, are needed to fund and keep boating sustainable. With the exception of Wallop-Breaux/Dingell-Johnson grants for transient harbors of refuge generated from the boating gasoline tax, there is no other funding for boating infrastructure expansion, rehab and upkeep. Recreational boating is also on a steady course of decline in both boat manufacturing and ownership in recent years.
Jumbo marinas that were built in the '80s and '90s on the Great Lakes are now more than 25 years into their life cycle and are desperately in need of repair. Many saltwater marinas on our nation's coastlines face similar problems. Marinas that were government bankrolled, especially on the Great Lakes, still remain in government ownership and now lack funds for maintenance and rehabilitation. Governments owning these marinas are seeking means to unload them into private hands for ownership and operation. Many jumbo marinas on the Great Lakes are operating at less than half occupancy and can hardly sustain profitable or even break-even operation.
For many boating infrastructures to remain viable, necessity demands that they be included as part of the nation’s infrastructure of roads, mass transit, bridges, dams, air and sea ports. Some jumbo marinas on the Great Lakes are designated as harbors of refuge -- places that offer mariners safety and protection from inclement weather or other disasters and thus may legitimize their incorporation under the federal transportation umbrella deserving rehabilitation assistance. If America were to start the recreational boating initiative today, it would be a stretch to classify these harbor marinas as harbors of refuge, but with 12 million registered boaters and 88 million people engaged in boating and sportfishing, why wouldn't this designation make sense due to safety considerations under the harbors of refuge classification.
On a national scale, there are organizations: National Marine Manufacturing Association), American Sportfishing Association, Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation and Sport Fishing and Boating Partnership Council with a strong incentive to have boating grow and remain available and sustainable for the many citizens of this nation. NMMA has been very successful acquiring boat shows all over the country revitalizing them. In the absence of any federal help, what groups might avail themselves to take over these ailing marinas and lead them into profitable operation? Some federal funding, i.e. Wallop Breaux/Dingell Johnson, is available and must change its prescribed use from that of serving the need to add transient slips to that of rehabilitation of marinas in decay, but this fund is small and hardly able to sustain such a major rehab task. Is there any federal infrastructure rehab assistance or any organizations available to come to the aid of this boating industry to acquire these marinas in government hands for next to nothing and help rehab and operate them?
Boating and its products and services have always been U.S. made and must remain in the hands of Americans to enjoy. These products and services must remain affordable considering that our next generation of boaters is going to be comprised of Millennials, who have very little discretionary money, minorities, and those of lesser means who seek to embrace the recreational boating and sportfishing lifetyle.
Left to its own destiny and accord, without any federal help, the future of recreational boating and the hundreds of marinas across the nation needing rehabilitation assistance does not look very promising. Without the admission of the recreational boating infrastructures into the federal transportation infrastructure category earmarked to undergo major rehab, many infrastructures will fall to the wayside and remain inoperable. The cost of of boating will escalate, give way to only larger crafts serving the wealthy, and eventually become unaffordable and out of reach to many.
F. Ned Dikmen, Ph.D, is chairman of the Great Lakes Boating Federation, an advocacy voice and marketplace for the 4.3 million boaters on the Great Lakes.