Marine Transportation System

Measuring Port Performance

In Efficiency, Federal Government, Legislation, MTS Policy, Port Performance, Ports, Transportation Policy on January 26, 2016 at 4:35 pm

The issue of measuring port performance was a contentious one over the last half of 2015. Now that there is such as thing in law as the Port Performance Freight Statistics Program the action has shifted to what to do about it. USDOT — really the Bureau of Transportation Statistics — is tasked with implementing the new law that requires the collection of data to express throughput and capacity in ports. BTS is expected to anonymize the competitively sensitive data for public consumption and report annually to Congress.

Implementation will prove no less a contentious matter, at least among the interests who were most active as the bill was being debated and now hope to inform BTS decisions. Nor does it promise to be a simple task for the agency.

Helpful to BTS is that some of the original bill requirements as to specific metrics and stepped up data collection during collective bargaining was left on the legislative cutting room floor. (The Port Performance Act, S.1298, as reported from committee listed eight metrics that must be used — such as average container lifts per hour and average cargo dwell time — and then added another five data types to be reported monthly to Congress around the time of port labor contract negotiations.)

The final version frees BTS to assemble a program that, perhaps, a transportation statistical agency might consider valid for assessing both port condition and performance, both being information that the department wants to have on the total freight system. Port related metrics are a segment of supply chain data that BTS previously said it lacked.

Not so helpful to BTS is that the mandate to build a new program was not accompanied by money to pay for the effort. Indeed, the agency’s authorized annual budget limit for the next five years is $26 million as set by Congress in the FAST Act. That is less than the agency has been given in past year appropriations and less than the $29 million requested by the Administration. (The American Statistical Association provides this perspective: “$26 million is the same level of the BTS budget in FY05, which means BTS will see a 30% decline in purchasing power from FY05 to FY20 due to inflation.”)

The port performance program is not a simple matter to stand up. That was made patently clear recently when BTS held a session on the subject at the TRB Annual Meeting. The agency took advantage of the fact that Washington was temporarily populated with scads of transportation economists, planners, engineers, industry representatives, consultants and other data hounds. At this session labeled “Port Data Users Forum” Rolf Schmitt, Deputy Director of BTS, sat on the dais making notes on his laptop as he heard a variety of comments and issues from persons at the standing mic. Specific questions were posed to get responses from the 70 or so folk in the room.

  1. What are the different port types from which data would need to be drawn?
  2. How could they be ranked (given that the law calls for data from the top 25 ports as measured by TEUs, tonnage and dry bulk cargo but ranking would not be a simple as that might seem)?
  3. What are some widely accepted and used types of port statistics?
  4. What is the best way to measure performance to determine efficiency and productivity?

Dan Smith of The Tioga Group that has studied terminal productivity, Bruce Lambert of the Institute for Trade and Transportation Studies, Anne Aylward of USDOT’s Volpe Center and former Boston port  director, Paul Bingham of the Economic Development Research Group, and Anne Kappel of the World Shipping Council were among the knowledgeable persons who offered suggestions and cautions. The comments collected gave Schmitt plenty to chew on.

The folks at BTS were given some formal help by Congress. The new PPFSP (it being Washington we have to mine initials to mysteriously label programs) includes the formation of a temporary “working group” of Federal agency, stakeholder and other sector representatives to assist BTS in determining what metrics to use in data collection and how to go about getting the data. Those stakeholders and some other likely working group members were among the persons (I among them) who lobbied and competed for preferred legislative language. One might expect those opposing views to surface again in some form during the working group discussions.

In his opening comments Rolf Schmitt noted that while the legislation uses the “working group” phraseology — perhaps an attempt by bill writers to avoid mandating formation of a formal advisory committee under the Federal Advisory Committee Act — it will be a Federal Advisory Committee in every sense of the word. That means a formal process starting with a notice in the Federal Register, the writing of a charter, and a host of other administrative requirements. A rulemaking process also is necessary to complete the task of establishing the data collection program. Schmitt noted that Federal law says that agencies such as his must minimize the burden put on those affected by such rules. Always good to know.

There was no lengthy list of suggested metrics offered that evening by those at the microphone in response to the question that held the most interest. Cargo dwell time and rail turn times were mentioned and indicated as among data that the marine terminal would keep. Since many terminals are privately operated, port authorities are not in possession of that data and, as one person noted, that is especially true in ports where private terminals are not tenants of a port authority.

Truck turn times were also mentioned but, as another person noted, collecting turn times that include waiting outside the gate will require capital investments in measuring equipment. The Port of Oakland is experimenting with Bluetooth technology. On the previous day Reade Kidd, Home Depot’s Director of International Logistics, offered the opinion of probably most cargo interests that metrics should reflect berth, rail, yard and gate operations.

When the hour was up, Rolf Schmitt left the convention center, no doubt thinking he had more questions and problems to solve on leaving than when he arrived.  Pbea

Word Searching the State of the Union

In Congress, Leadership, President, Transportation Policy on January 23, 2016 at 1:18 pm

President Obama’s annual State of the Union Address was an uneventful one for folks in the port and transportation business. That word, transportation, came up just once; port nary once. (It’s actually a game here in town to listen to see if a favorite topic is mentioned in the speech.  A colleague of mine downs a shot whenever he hears a key word uttered by the Chief Executive at the podium.

Interest groups lobby every administration to have an issue mentioned by the president as an indicator of his ambitions for the new year. Of course the odds for that happening are poor. And when it does, the mention does not always please.

I recall being less than thrilled when my home Port of New York-New Jersey was mentioned by Ronald Reagan in his annual address as having waste paper as a principal export commodity. His point was something about the country’s balance of trade, as I recall, but it was not America’s image that concerned me in that moment he was speaking to the nation.)

Back to this most recent SOTU, I noted that at one point Barack Obama uttered, “21st century transportation system.” However, no points were awarded (or drinks downed) as the phrase concluded a paragraph about investing in clean energy. Actually, the text reads as a bit of a nonsequitor, missing a connecting thought that his speech writers thought but didn’t write.  Here is the full paragraph:

Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy. Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future – especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.

Perhaps the president was referring to a carbon tax that would be used, among other things, to support transportation projects….or maybe he wasn’t.

If anything, here would have been the perfect spot to refer to the recently enacted surface transportation bill that he sought, and signed, but apparently the subject was not deemed sufficiently important to take eight or so seconds to say how he and Congress actually got something done. A joint session is a terrible thing to waste. (Apologies to “the mind.”)

After all, it was a fresh memory of just a few weeks since Congress rushed the significant FAST Act to the president. Politico asked some of the transportation leaders in Congress if they were miffed by the non-mention.  Yes, they responded, and if not miffed, then disappointed.

The speech did include two references to trade related topics, which can have some meaning for port people who wanted AT LEAST SOMETHING said having to do with portstuff.

That’s how we forged a Trans-Pacific Partnership to open markets, protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia. It cuts 18,000 taxes on products Made in America, and supports more good jobs. With TPP, China doesn’t set the rules in that region, we do. You want to show our strength in this century? Approve this agreement. Give us the tools to enforce it.

Fifty years of isolating Cuba had failed to promote democracy, setting us back in Latin America. That’s why we restored diplomatic relations, opened the door to travel and commerce, and positioned ourselves to improve the lives of the Cuban people. You want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere? Recognize that the Cold War is over. Lift the embargo.

Those have value to ports. Some ports have lined up behind the White House agenda for TPP approval, as has the American Association of Port Authorities, and indeed the Administration is asking port agencies and everyone else to make their support known on Capitol Hill where the negotiated, multilateral agreement faces an uphill battle for the consent of the Senate. Likewise, some ports, particularly those in the Gulf and South Atlantic, have worked for years to develop relationships in Cuba to be positioned well for a resumption of commercial relations. The Administration’s reconciliation initiative was welcome news to US exporters and gateways.

Both of those issues — TPP and Cuba — are ones that have the business community and the White House working as allies and a number of Democrats siding with Administration opponents.

So, there you go…a few words in the speech to note, but just a few. Is your favorite issue found in the 2016 State of the Union Address?   Pbea

Stormy Washington

In Congress, Federal Government, Politics, Washington, DC on January 21, 2016 at 12:35 am

Folks here are talking about actual weather, not metaphorical meteorology of the sort that can be a useful device when writing about Official Washington rhetoric and policy e.g., windy, hot air, foggy, drought…not to mention the occasional political lightning.

No, this is the lots-of-wet-snow kind.  Ninety percent chance of a few inches. Fifty percent chance of 12 inches. Maybe even a couple feet. “Colossal storm to unload a foot of snow from DC to Philadelphia, NYC” is the Washington Post weather page headline, that hours later could be modified in either direction depending on which predictive model is finding favor. I may wake up tomorrow to find the weekend storm will be Very Colossal or just Sorta Big. The fearful watch for snow passes for excitement in this Mid-Atlantic town. (What do you mean you’re out of snowblowers? You’re Home Depot, for godsakes!)

The snow starts here during the morning commute on Friday. The Nation’s Capital doesn’t manage heavy snow very well. We’re taking odds on the government sending people home even before they get to work. Get ready to hear spinning tire much of the day and night hours, and see sidewalks whose residents wouldn’t think of getting ankle deep in the wet stuff to shovel when the sun will eventually do it for you. (Wanna bet when the District’s downtown streets finally get plowed?)  Ah! Winter in Washington!

Then there is the financial storm front, forecast as likely to be of historic dimensions, that has been battering that other center of American power — Wall Street. Instead of snowfalls the headline is “Dow Falls.” The price of oil is sending economic shock waves through new and old producing states and here as well. Speculation has begun that the Federal Reserve will eventually be drawn back into a resumption of quantitative easing policy or some other response that confirms an economy in reverse gear. (You see! Obama is making things worse for American producers by lifting sanctions on Iranian oil.) The multiple committee oversight hearings are inevitable…for starters.

Let’s not leave out that other major disturbance now forming in the early primary states. Talking heads and party leaders are acknowledging the growing odds that political disruptors can win the party nominations. If it’s not Trump it’s Cruz. And what does that mean for the other Republicans on the ticket? Will Democrats regain the majority? Panic is setting in. (Jeb!)

Claire McCaskill (D-MO) resorted to using a “hammer and sickle” reference when talking about Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) as he grows stronger against her candidate, Hillary Clinton…who sent her daughter out to make specious claims against Sanders and worked the other end of the spectrum by suggesting that the Brooklyn-born Sanders is reliably doing NRA’s bidding. (Did she actually say that!) The patently silly talking point — to which Sanders responded by proudly pointing to his D- grade on the NRA report card — put quizzical faces on half the bronzes in Statuary Hall.

Then there is Donald Trump who yesterday said that there could be a place in his administration for Sarah Palin.

Washington is on its way to becoming a psychological mess.  Pbea

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