In an affront to taxpayers, the feds admit the breakwater is in such bad shape it could fail at any time, yet say fixing it is not a priority
The federal government’s Army Corps of Engineers, after having to be pressured into inspecting the obviously crumbling Port Washington breakwater, declared the structure to be in such weakened condition that it could fail as soon as this winter. It the next breath its spokesman said it will likely be years before it can be repaired.
What kind of response is that from the government of the country boasting the most powerful economy in the world? A shameful one.
Repairing the breakwater that protects a small Midwest town’s harbor may be insignificant as a federal project, yet the failure to maintain it casts a symbolic shadow on the integrity of the national government. If it can’t take care of an obvious and pressing need to keep a public facility effective and safe, it’s fair to ask, what can it do?
Make no mistake, the federal government owns this problem. It owns the breakwater. It designed it, built it, controls its use and, until the recent years of neglect, maintained it.
Its excuse for letting the breakwater deteriorate to the point where collapse may be imminent is based on a false priority. The Corps of Engineers says it cannot give timely attention to the breakwater because the Port Washington harbor is no longer a commercial harbor.
The notion that Port Washington is not entitled to the same attention the harbor received when it benefitted We Energies and the coal-fired power plant it operated on the city waterfront is offensive.
It is true that the freighters that once delivered coal to the power plant no longer use the harbor, but Port Washington depends on the harbor more than ever. The commerce generated by the harbor today—yes, it is a commercial harbor—is far more important to the city than anything it gained from the shipping that served the power plant.
Millions of dollars that buoy the local economy each year come by way of the harbor, through the charter fishing fleet, marina users and visitors traveling by sea and land who are attracted to the city by its downtown harbor.
Moreover, the City of Port Washington has underscored the commercial importance of the harbor by investing in the improvement of the deep-water dock, now part of Coal Dock Park, that once served the coal boats. The dock, which depends on the breakwater for protection, will be used for tall ships sailed here for festivals, excursion boats and other commercial uses in the future, perhaps even to accommodate the occasional cruise ship.
The port of Port Washington is the only harbor in Ozaukee County and, of course, it serves purely recreational needs too, as it should. The taxpayers who find enjoyment in what the breakwater helps provide should not be treated as second-class citizens unworthy of having federal facilities properly maintained just because they’re used for fun.
The neglect of the breakwater by its owner is of a piece with the skewed spending priorities inflicted on the nation by a Congress obsessed with deficit reduction even when it’s demonstrably harmful. The federal deficit, now at its lowest level in five years, is shrinking as revenues grow. Yet Congress has refused to appropriate funds for essential maintenance of the country’s infrastructure—the bridges, highways and, yes, harbors that are fundamental to the functioning of society but are deteriorating under lax federal stewardship.
A chorus of respected economists has been advocating investment in the necessary upgrading of the nation’s infrastructure to give Americans safer facilities while adding jobs to improve the still sluggish economy. Let it start here: Fix the breakwater, help the economy, do what’s right for Port Washington.
In a letter to the editor published in last week’s Ozaukee Press, signed by the Harbor Commission and the Charter Captains and Marina Tenants associations, Bill Driscoll, an alderman and Harbor Commission member, called on the public to contact federal legislators to demand action on the breakwater.
Readers should heed that call. Tell the representatives we expect the federal government to take responsibility for its breakwater—the problem it owns—now.