Marine Transportation System

Port Performance Under the Microscope

In Congress, Labor, Legislation, Ports on September 1, 2015 at 5:07 pm

I last wrote of how Washington policy makers and agencies grew more interested in the port sector and how ports, small and large, benefited by that attention. So let’s consider some recent and largely unwelcome attention.

The messy, prolonged West Coast contract talks and negotiating tactics that resulted in a dysfunctioning supply chain at the waterfront elicited a strong and prolonged backlash from the importers, exporters and others whose own operations depend on reasonably well-functioning ports. (“After all, shippers crave certainty, and they crave reliability,” the recently released Pacific Maritime Association annual report acknowledges.) Not that the shippers were taken by surprise. With the 2002, ten-day shutdown of the ports fresh in mind, they expected the worse and were diverting some cargo to gateways of other coasts (or countries) months into the talks.

You are familiar with the recent history. The talks between the PMA and International Longshore and Warehouse Union started in May 2014. A year later the ILWU rank and file gave the new contract its final approval. In between is where it got interesting and “port congestion” came to be reported in main stream media. Management pointed to the intentional shorting of the workforce by union leadership. The union countered saying the terminals brought the problem on themselves by not being prepared for big ships with more cargo. In any event, port congestion was amplified at the largest Pacific gateways.

Export apples were not making it overseas markets in time. Retailers decried the slow flow of their freight from ship to gate and finally to shelves. But first the ship had to get to berth. By February, when the tentative agreement was reached, there were over 30 ships waiting at anchor off Los Angeles and Long Beach. POLA executive director Gene Seroka told the Wall Street Journal that he expected “it will be about three months before we return to a sense of normalcy.”

Over the nine months that the negotiations were underway the cargo interests were active and vocal. A coalition of companies and trade associations formed and periodically met with and issued joint letters to policy makers. They asked for intervention or at least for official Washington to pressure negotiators to make it quick. Their major complaint over time was that President Obama was just, in the White House’s word, “monitoring,” not acting. Members of Congress eventually expressed their concern about the effect of the prolonged talks.

Meanwhile the Port of Portland had its own particular low productivity problem where a continuing multi-year dispute, if anything, wasn’t helped by the prolonged contract talks. By February, a frustrated Hanjin Shipping announced it would end service there, leaving Portland and its ICTSI terminal operator in search of a willing container line.

Leading up to and long after the conclusion of the contract talks the shipper community lobbied for “a tool that will help provide certainty to future negotiations.” Letters seeking legislation to provide that tool typically would carry over one hundred organizations’ names. Some bills eventually were introduced. But from the perspective of most ports, the bill represents more problems than potential solutions.

Congressional advocates for the cargo interests have taken two approaches in their legislation. The first to emerge was the “Port Performance Act” (S.1298) by Senator John Thune (R-SD). He chairs the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee that eventually approved the measure. Noting that the port sector had yet to be plumbed for the sort of “condition and performance” data that Congress and transportation planners say are needed to better evaluate the national freight system, Thune’s bill prescribes the annual collection of monthly terminal operations data. It’s the sort of data that terminal operators keep for themselves to improve terminal functions and that port authorities are reluctant to have out there to be used by the competition. In the version that ultimately was approved as a provision in the Senate’s surface transportation bill is the requirement for data on vessel, train and truck time in port, lifts per hour, and cargo dwell time. Those and other metrics are required to be used for the annual reports to USDOT.

What is not in the Senate-passed bill is a provision, original to S.1298, that would require monthly reports of port performance data to USDOT and Congress during collective bargaining periods when contracts have expired. Organized labor and ports don’t like the bill and the unions lobbied especially hard to have that particular provision excised.

The other type of bill that was introduced—first in the Senate and more recently in the House—would amend labor law. Whereas Thune’s Port Performance Act is premised in part on the idea that data would be useful in documenting when port cargo operations and cargo interests suffer during contract negotiations, the other legislation is to provide a means to engage the government and the courts in bringing closure to prolonged negotiations i.e., a market for that data.

Freshman Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) introduced his “Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit of Shipments (PORTS) Act” (S.1519) to amend the Taft-Hartley Act to make slowdowns an unfair labor practice and empower governors to initiate boards of inquiry and seek court injunctions. (The House version was introduced in July by Dave Reichert (R-WA) and others.)

Senator James Risch (R-ID) takes a somewhat similar approach to the Gardner bill, with added inspiration from the Portland terminal operator who wants parties responsible for slowdowns to be penalized. Risch’s “Preventing Labor Union Slowdowns (PLUS) Act” (S.1360) makes slowdowns an unfair labor practice, defines slowdowns, declares US policy as one to “eliminate the causes and mitigate the effects” of port disruptions, and prescribes penalties for violators including decertification of labor organizations.

So what are the prospects for these bills in this Republican-led Congress? Amendments to labor law are sought by Republicans and opposed by Democrats. While the former has solid majorities in both chambers, the latter is in a position to slow and stop bills in the Senate where 60 votes routinely are needed to assure passage of just about any bill of substance. We may see hearings on the PORTS and PLUS Act legislation, and we definitely will see GAO reports—already requested—on the economic consequences of the West Coast talks. But between the Senate rules and the Democrat in the White House (see Secretary Perez comments), those bills will have trouble becoming law, perhaps even getting floor time in Congress.

Thune’s Port Performance Act is quite another matter. The diluted version of the bill passed the Senate, tucked away in the 1024-page, appropriately labeled DRIVE Act (H.R.22). It is the Senate’s version of a must-pass highway and transit bill. Key House legislators have yet to weigh in on the issue of port performance metrics and data collection, much less produce their own 6-year transportation infrastructure bill. Some action on the larger bill is inevitable, perhaps to the point of becoming law.

When the House side takes up the question, cargo interests will again point to the West Coast experience and seek restoration of frequent data reporting during contract talks. Port interests will explain why the Thune language is generally impractical and unwelcome. Labor will ask the House transportation leaders to flatly oppose the entire Port Performance section that is in the Senate passed bill.

More to come on this matter of the performance and condition of ports, and how and whether to measure it.   Pbea

Ports Then, Ports Now

In Congress, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Ports, Surface Transportation Policy on May 4, 2015 at 10:08 pm

Not all that long ago U.S. ports—principally through the public port authorities—were minor and largely absent players in the Federal transportation policy discussion. Port authorities and marine terminals engaged attorneys who tended to the infrequent channel project and to regulatory matters before Federal commissions. Seaports were (and still are) creatures of states and municipal level government. There was no Federal funding to speak of. Ports were assisted in the form of navigation channels constructed and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through the Civil Works program—a program in the control of legislators, who reserved the authority to approve projects, and engineers, who were told to implement the projects. Even in the case of port channels the appropriated sums did not go to port authorities but were cycled within the Federal government and to its contractors.

Back then U.S. maritime related policy was tightly focused on promoting U.S. flag shipping, American shipyards and American crews. Ports were in a policy no-man’s-land between the water and land modes. In its early years the U.S. Department of Transportation had maritime jurisdiction through the U.S. Coast Guard. USDOT was all about building the interstate highway system and tending to railroads, aviation and mass transit. It was not until 1981 when the Maritime Administration moved into USDOT after 31 years in the Commerce Department. Even then the agency continued to be concerned with vessels, not ports and harbors.

By 1980 only a handful of ports had need for Washington representation focused on Capitol Hill and transportation programs and policy, beyond that provided by the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA).

The 1980s were a time of change. Transportation regulation was giving way to forms of deregulation. By the close of 1978 we saw deregulation take hold; railroad, motor carrier and aviation policies were being reshaped. At times ports were very interested stakeholders as Congress ushered in deregulation. If anything, they wanted to be assured of sufficient rail service, preferably the competitive kind. The Shipping Act of 1984 took the maritime sector a few steps toward deregulation, with some implications for harbors, but greater reforms had to wait until the Ocean Shipping Act of 1998.

It was not until the mid-eighties that ports entered the center ring of Washington policy deliberation. Most of the Carter and Reagan years constituted a legislative dry spell for water resource bills. Ready plans for navigation improvements and proposed feasibility studies awaited action. “User fee” had a certain cachet in the Reagan years. The message to Congress was clear: in return for the president’s willingness to sign a projects bill some reforms would be required and Federal project costs would be offset. Local project sponsors would have to share the cost of improving channel projects. Port users would have to cover a substantial portion of Federal channel maintenance costs. Defining who was to pay, and how much, divided ports into two opposing coalitions. It was not a lasting split but it highlighted differences among the harbors, their physical characteristics, their cargo volume, and their cargo kind.

The resulting Water Resources Development Act of 1986 was landmark legislation that reset navigation and other water resources policy. It also triggered an awareness on the part of ports to be present and active in Washington, both through individual representation and associations.

In the 1990s the Department of Transportation developed an interest in the port sector and the condition of water and land access routes to marine terminals. The department’s jurisdiction did not include the system of channels–and the Corps of Engineers jealously guarded that historic jurisdiction–but it rightly saw the importance of efficient access to the port facilities regardless of the mode taken. Moreover, port and other freight interest groups collaborated in calling on policy makers to give their attention to freight mobility.

In 1991 Congress enacted surface transportation legislation–its prior iterations known simply as “the highway bill”–and in doing so finally adopted intermodalism as a desirable direction for policy. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 did not create an avenue for Federal aid for port facilities but it did hint at a line that would be crossed years later, when Federal dollars helped make improvements inside the terminal gates. The ISTEA sausage-making experience inspired trade groups to form the Freight Stakeholders Coalition. In the twenty-five 25 years that followed the coalition celebrated some successes and today is still at work looking to strengthen Federal freight infrastructure policy.

One of the first intermodal efforts by USDOT, in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board, was to examine the state of access to ports by the land modes. TRB’s 1993 report, Landside Access to U.S. Ports was followed the next year when the ISTEA-created National Commission on Intermodal Transportation published its report, Toward a National Intermodal Transportation System. The case was being made with evidence mounting. In 2000, the results of another congressional mandated study was reported by USDOT on National Highway System Intermodal Connectors. Freight infrastructure as it led to and departed from marine terminal areas was in poor condition. Actually doing something about it had to wait a while longer for SAFETEA-LU (2005) and MAP-21 (2012).

One other marker along the policy path deserves mentioning. In 1997 Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater initiated a look into what he referred to as the “marine transportation system,” which by definition is port-centered and extends beyond the terminal gate to include the access modes and intermodal operations. USDOT convened stakeholder sessions in port cities and then a national conference on the MTS. The resulting 1999 report–An Assessment of the U.S. Marine Transportation Systemincluded recommendations, among them the facilitation of landside access to ports and the formation of an interagency Committee on the Marine Transportation System and a stakeholder Marine Transportation System National Advisory Council. Those and certain other recommendations were implemented and have contributed to improvements in both freight operations and the port policy discussion.

In September 2001 the rationale for port security measures was instantly revised, making it so much more than a matter of smuggling and cargo theft. Securing both the ports and vessels took on an urgency that made for a sharp learning curve for government and private sector alike. A ship entering a port represented a new vulnerability for the U.S. For a start, Congress produced the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002. The Coast Guard was given new responsibility, multi-stakeholder port security committees were formed, and facility plans were required. Fences and cameras went up where there had been none. The Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) was created for the maritime sector. The Port Security Grants Program was created and before long it was funded annually at $400 million, the dollar level being a particular success of the ports’ American Association of Port Authorities.

Then, in 2009, the severe recession prompted the new administration and Congress to formulate an economic stimulus package that included a $1.5 billion dollar competitive grant program for “shovel ready“ construction projects. What came to be called TIGER grants were awarded not just for the usual road and transit systems but also to ports and heavy rail. Freight related projects snared a third of the grants to the surprise of everyone including the folks at USDOT who realized that freight investments could be evaluated in cost/benefit terms more readily than Biden in Charlestonthe usual stretch of highway or transit rail. To date, TIGER grants have gone to 24 port projects in 16 states for a total of over $344 million in Federal funds alone.

Today the Federal government takes great interest in ports. They are seen as vital gateways for U.S. exports and critical modal connectors that when not functioning well can diminish American competitiveness. They are potentially vulnerable to terrorist attacks and are bell-weathers for our economic well-being. And they make impressive backdrops for politicians.

In 1985 I convened a meeting of a few port lobbyists to talk about shared issues. Thirty years later, a considerably larger Washington Port Reps group continues to meet and discuss a much larger issue agenda.  Pbea

(Thank you, Lillian Borrone and Jean Godwin, for your memory-jogging assistance.)

Much Ado About a Budget Resolution

In Congress, Infrastructure, Ports on March 31, 2015 at 12:31 am

At 4:24 am last Friday the Senate called it a night (or morning). Shortly before, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” quit deliberating, bringing its “vote-a-rama” session to a merciful end. “Deliberation” doesn’t apply very well here. When the Senate takes up its annual budget resolution and an around-the-clock offering of amendments it is anything but “long and careful consideration or discussion,” as defined in Oxford.

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) coached visiting constituents on Wednesday morning that this was great time to see the Senate from the gallery. The senator was right to the extent that one doesn’t often get a chance to see a majority of Members on the floor for an extended period of time. As promised, she and her colleagues were there touting and voting on amendments to the FY 2016 Budget Resolution in a rare display of a constant quorum in search of a budget framework. Probably more than a few of them were also in search of an expeditious deliverance from what at times has the appearance of an exhausting, even pointless, legislative exercise.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 11 is serious business, much like its cousin, H. Con. Res. 27, which on Wednesday the House of Representatives dispatched in far fewer bleary-eyed hours. When/if the process is concluded, the Congress will have a single congressional budget resolution—no White House signature needed, thank you—that sets enforceable limits on appropriations in broad categories, e.g. transportation, for the next fiscal year. It is a budget discipline that Congress created in 1974.

In this case, both chambers and their Republican majorities last week produced resolutions that maintain the increasingly constrictive caps and the across-the-board cuts of sequestration of the infamous Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA). Both resolutions project balanced budgets in ten years. Both put downward pressure on spending for  non-defense and defense discretionary (non-entitlement) programs. But both, ultimately, also create exceptions so as to boost defense spending above the BCA ceiling that John McCain (R-AZ) called “reckless” and “a disasterin his attempt to end the grip of sequestration on the DOD side of the ledger.

There are differences between the Senate and House resolutions, which may be resolved in conference between the two budget committees.

So, you might ask, what exactly is a “vote-a-rama” in the US Senate?” In large part, it is a chance for a large number of amendments to be taken up in a short amount of time. Everybody, in theory, has the opportunity to shape the broad framework for spending. Well, not really. It might better be described as rapid-fire amendments so one can go on record—or put the other guy on record—for or against something. Standard Senate rules are put aside for purposes of budget resolution consideration. No chance to spend 20 minutes airing an issue or in orderly exchanges with a colleague over some weighty matter. Instead, senators mostly were asked to vote on vaguely worded issue proxies that have little practical effect on spending decisions or the issues themselves.

Serious subjects may be raised but a senator has a minute to state her case, assuming her amendment—one of nearly 800 introduced—is among the few that actually get floor time. Some are approved without objection, others rejected or agreed to by recorded vote. Some are withdrawn—the point already made—or ruled out of order.

Susan Collins (R-ME) said “the process gets misused just to make the other side cast uncomfortable votes,” adding that “the budget should be a serious process…” One didn’t have to look far for a handy example, this one covering two political hot buttons in one amendment. A senator wanted to “establish a spending-neutral reserve fund relating to limiting the ability of Environmental Protection Agency personnel to carry guns.” The italicized phrase is the common form used in the amendments, helping make it pertinent to the budget resolution and within its dollar limits.

Where any subjects of relevance to the port/logistics world proposed in the wearying session last week? Yes.

Two proposed amendments were inspired by the recent West Coast longshore talks and slowdown. One was by Deb Fisher (R-NE) relating to a request that has been (or will be) made for the GAO to investigate “the impact of service disruptions at West Coast ports during 2014 and 2015.” The other was by Cory Gardner (R-CO) with the notion “to prevent labor disputes at seaports in the United States from causing national economic disruptions and crippling businesses across the United States.” Neither would have practical effect beyond perhaps establishing Senate sentiment as to what took place during the longshore negotiations. (No vote)

Deb Fisher, chair of the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security Subcommittee, and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), ranking Democrat on the Environment & Public Works Committee, sponsored an amendment to “strengthen waterborne commerce in our ports and harbors, which may include increasing the percentage of the amounts expended from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund that are dedicated to port infrastructure and maintenance.” What does that mean? They associated themselves with the notion of increasing O&M spending from the HMTF. Nothing more. (Adopted)

A freight-related amendment by Dean Heller (R-NV) aspires to ensure that the DOT Secretary prioritize “the construction of projects that are of national and regional significance and projects in high priority corridors on the National Highway System…” (Adopted)

In the same vein, Cory Booker (D-NJ) sought to “encourage freight planning and investment that incorporates all modes of transportation, including rail, waterways, ports, and highways to promote national connectivity.” (Adopted)

A Gary Peters (D-MI) amendment related “to supporting trade and travel at ports of entry.” (Adopted)

Patty Murray (D-WA) called for increasing funding for the TIGER grant program. (Adopted)

Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) proposed one “to ensure high-income earners pay a fair share in taxes and to use the revenue to invest in repairing our Nation’s bridges, coastal infrastructure, and damage from wildfires.” (Withdrawn)

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) got a vote on his amendment relating to EPA regulation of “greenhouse gas emissions, which may include a prohibition on withholding highway funds from States that refuse to submit State Implementation Plans required under the Clean Power Plan of the Agency.” (Adopted 57-43)

Today EPA’s Gina McCarthy today said, no problem, Senator. “EPA doesn’t have the legal authority” to do that anyway.

Pbea

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