Legislation that would provide grants and low-interest loans to keep America's working waterfronts in business sailed through the U.S. House of Representatives last week, and will now make its way to the Senate.

The Keep America's Waterfronts Working Act was introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Rep. Joseph Whitman (R-Virginia). It was included in a package of bills that passed with bipartisan support. Democrat William Keating, who represents Massachusetts' 9th Congressional District, was a co-sponsor. The bill would amend the Coastal Zone Management Act.

In the larger scheme of things, it's not a lot of money. Under the bill, $12 million each would be authorized for the loan and grant programs. States would be in charge of allocating the funds to eligible local local governments, non-profits and fishing co-ops. The bill would establish a working waterfronts task force within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"To the extent that federal money becomes available, that's all for the good," said Edward Anthes-Washburn, executive director of the New Bedford Port Authority. "We are very much in support of the legislation."

Even in New Bedford, with its thriving working waterfront, serious investment will be needed to secure that status for future generations, according to studies conducted by the Port Authority.

Asked to put a ballpark figure on the overall need in New Bedford, Anthes-Washburn said the Port Authority is now conducting a "conditions survey update" of existing port facilities, and that dollar estimates will be a part of that. The activity is guided by a 2018-2023 strategic plan that calls for major investment at North Terminal, the state pier, the Popes Island Marina, and at other locations.

In the meantime, simply maintaining existing port facilities has cost around $3 million over the last 3-4 years. "A lot of our infrastructure was build mid-century," Anthes-Washburn said.

The port director added that federal funds specifically targeted to working waterfront development are needed. A $15.4 million BUILD grant that the port won last year to extend the North Terminal was from a competitive program geared toward all forms of transportation, not just port freight.

"We must have applied for that program for four or five years before we got it," he said.

Overall, the idea is to keep New Bedford harbor functioning as a working waterfront for generations to come.

New Bedford is currently the number-one value fishing port in the nation, generating annual activity of over $11 billion with 500 working vessels. Certain kinds of cargo shipping are big at the port. Offshore wind staging is expected to start up soon, and recreational boating has its own economic footprint. In short, the port puts food on the table for many working families in the region.

The harbor already enjoys some government protections. Sections have been labeled by the state as a "Designated Port Area," which encourages facilities such as fish processing plants. The port is a US Foreign Trade Zone, which provides duty-free manufacturing opportunities for importers and exporters. Massachusetts has also invested millions in its state-owned facilities at North Terminal and the State Pier.

Across the U.S., working waterfronts are threatened by non-compatible real estate development, by inadequate funds to invest in port infrastructure and dredging, by climate-related changes to the ocean and harbors, and by trade barriers and shifts in the global economy, advocates for the bill said.

Nationwide, the maritime and Great Lakes economy supports more than 3 million jobs and contributes $350 billion to the nation's gross domestic products, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.