Marine Transportation System

Archive for November, 2009|Monthly archive page

Vision Ingredients (Part 1)

In Federal Government, Leadership, Surface Transportation Policy on November 28, 2009 at 8:19 pm

Thinking of George H. W. Bush can conger up a few unfortunate (for him), lasting images. For me it’s the former president’s food judgments (pork rinds good/broccoli bad), his unfamiliarity with the price of  milk, and Dana Carvey’s exaggerated but dead-on impersonation.  Then there was, “oh, the vision thing.”  It sounded like he thought it a useless factor in governing–perhaps more so than he may have intended–but it stuck.

As a practical matter civil servants and political appointees often aren’t given the time to engage in “visioning”. Sometimes when it is done it can amount to little more than a facilitated exercise.  But what may seem like a luxury, or a waste, arguably is essential for a new administration and even newly sworn congressional leadership.

At USDOT some part of a vision is in place, though I don’t know how much is the result of planning or predisposition.

The two elements of an Obama transportation vision that I can identify are high speed passenger rail and livable communities.  The first is courtesy of President Obama himself.  In an out-of-the-blue moment earlier this year the White House said the economic stimulus package being written in Congress must include billions to start a high speed rail program.  (It was one of a few Obama “musts” in a measure that was mostly dismissed by Republicans as a “Pelosi” bill.)   The rail piece was the president’s vision, and an inspired one to be sure.

The second quickly became a regularly voiced theme by Secretary Ray LaHood and his policy staff.  It suits an administration that is oriented toward energy conservation, the urban environment and, not to be forgotten, the voting pedestrian/commuter.  Does it qualify as vision?  I think so.  It’s more than a policy view because a livable community objective could transform urban and town landscapes and it entails a broad range of policy solutions.

Meanwhile a more complete administration surface transportation policy is still in the cooker.  Congressional committees are wondering what and when policy recommendations for a successor to SAFETEA-LU will emerge from USDOT headquarters.  Perhaps no sooner than mid 2010.

Vision and policy are not synonymous.  One can have a new vision, and implementing policy, for passenger rail while maintaining a decades-old freight policy.  Somehow that doesn’t sound like this administration.

It’s one thing for the recent Bush administration and Secretary Mary Peters to articulate a scant administration view  about transportation that amounted to little more than less Federal government, more State responsibility, and greater private sector financing and management.  It made for a transportation policy only a Cato could appreciate.

But we might reasonably expect more from Messrs Obama and LaHood given the administration’s expansive environmental and energy view.  Transportation’s role in addressing those issues is significant and goes beyond putting passengers on trains and encouraging transit use and bicycling.

So here’s the question: What is the total vision that will steer administration action and guidance to congress over the next three, maybe seven, years?  Will it be more than passenger rail and livable communities?    Pbea

California Trailblazing to a Miami Tunnel

In Intermodal, Ports, Surface Transportation Policy on November 17, 2009 at 11:04 pm

When earth was turned in 1997 for the Alameda Corridor project in the San Pedro Bay port region more than one kind of ground breaking was occurring.  The Port of Miami is a beneficiary.

In freight transportation policy circles the Alameda Corridor project one day may be legend.  The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were the gaping end of a freight funnel that emptied import boxes onto the exit rails and streets.  In essence the solution was to eliminate grade crossings by building a blow-grade rail way out of town.  A big project with a $2.4B price tag.  A key to the financing was Federal credit assistance.  The project and two others in California were the first to benefit by this innovation.  A paper on the FHWA website tells the story.

Due to Federal budgetary constraints, however, the grant was not deemed to be a fiscally or politically viable option. An alternative form of Federal support for this project was needed, and by 1997 the answer was clear: Federal credit enhancement in the form of a junior-lien loan to ACTA.

The fiscal year 1997 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act (Public Law 104-208) provided $58.7 million for DOT to cover the capital reserve charges associated with making a direct loan of up to $400 million to ACTA for the Alameda Corridor Project. This represents an actual budgetary cost of 14.7 percent of the face value of credit assistance. The legislation also provided that the loan be repaid within 30 years from the date of project completion and that the interest rate on the loan not exceed the 30-year Treasury rate.

Inspired by the success of leveraging non-Federal investment for large infrastructure project, particularly private financing, Congress in 1998 fashioned a fully articulated TIFIA program.  It was adjusted in SAFETEA-LU with a lowered threshold to make more projects eligible.

Nearly $7 billion in projects in 13 states have benefited since TIFIA was created by Congress.  The Port of Miami’s rail freight tunnel had an uncertain future but with the October announcement the financing is in place and a $607 million construction project soon will be underway.  Not bad.   Pbea

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The Connective Tissue of a Nation

In Federal Government, Infrastructure on November 17, 2009 at 4:13 pm

You can’t thrive as a nation while New Orleans is drowning…and cities in upstate New York and the Rust Belt are rotting from lack of employment opportunities, and so on.   Imagine, instead, an America with rebuilt, healthy, dynamic metropolitan areas, and gleaming new port facilities, and networks of high-speed rail, an America with electric vehicles and a smart grid and energy generated by the power of the sun and wind and water and the ocean’s waves. (“What the Future May Hold”, November 17, 2009)

Bob Herbert of the New York Times has penned several columns about our crumbling infrastructure. How many times can writers like Herbert belabor the point?  Not enough.

Eugene Robinson of the WPost:  It’s unrealistic to think this disaster is going to spur the nation to seriously address all its infrastructure problems. We’ll talk about the issue for a while, then go out and buy another TV. But we can—and should—at least do a more rigorous inventory and identify the structures that pose the most peril. Yes, it’s boring stuff to even think about. But just look at the alternative. (“Back to Basics”, August 2, 2007)

David Brooks of the NYT:    In times like these, the best a sensible leader can do is to take the short-term panic and channel it into a program that is good on its own merits even if it does nothing to stimulate the economy over the next year. That’s why I’m hoping the next president takes the general resolve to spend gobs of money, and channels it into a National Mobility Project, a long-term investment in the country’s infrastructure. (“A National Mobility Project”, October 31, 2008)

Thomas Friedman of the NYT:  Look in the mirror: G.M. is us.  That’s why we don’t just need a bailout. We need a reboot. We need a build out. We need a buildup. We need a national makeover. That is why the next few months are among the most important in U.S. history. (“Time to Reboot America”, December 23, 2008)

Brooks and Friedman wrote on the eve of the new Administration and the writing of a stimulus bill by Congress.  Some small part of the “recovery” package  signed by the president was in the spirit of rebooting, as Friedman suggested, but it was too little.  The Obama Administration talked in vision terms but didn’t press for vision-scale action by Congress.

At this point–nearly a year into Democratic control of Washington and millions of  job losses later–an infrastructure policy is being talked about only in oblique terms, as “Stimulus II” or, by those who are fearful of  the spender label, the non-stimulus stimulus.  And as helpful as that may be for purposes of creating some jobs  it doesn’t substitute for an infrastructure policy.

So shall we primly, safely wait for Federal accounts to come into balance, saying we can’t afford it, while developing and developed nations on other continents propel themselves into economic vitality with steel, wind turbines, and fiber optics?  Consider what can be accomplished by putting money–yes, borrowed money–into real, decades-lasting, efficiency-producing, capacity-building, economy-stimulating, pride-inducing public works and critical infrastructure.

For all their faults the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s strengthened our nation in lasting public works, a strong sense of conservation, and nation-building spirit.  As if to prod us into action some of the glorious thirties era infrastructure that has not been well maintained is visibly deteriorating.

Bob Herbert: Consider transportation. As Brookings tells us, “Other nations around the globe have continued to act on the calculus that state-of-the art transportation infrastructure — the connective tissue of a nation — is critical to moving goods, ideas and workers quickly and efficiently. In the United States, however, we seem to have forgotten.”

Pbea


Mapping the “Hidden Highway”

In Infrastructure, Marine Highway, New York Harbor on November 13, 2009 at 8:04 pm
NOS

Click for Audio

When someone talks about “keeping ships from turning into shipwrecks” we all probably could agree that’s a worthwhile use of tax dollars.

The fellow whose job it has been to map the coastal waters where ships ply the “hidden highway” is Captain Steve Barnum, who retired this year NOAA after 29 years.  He most recently headed NOAA’s Coast Survey, part of the National Ocean Service (NOS).

If you click the image above, you’ll hear him talk about the valuable service provided by the folks at NOS:

  • the country has “95,000 linear nautical miles of shoreline…3.4 square nautical miles of underwater territory” half of which was last mapped using “lead line soundings”…
  • mapping of the coastline is “a continual process”…many parts of the coastal regions remain uncharted…some data is as old as the Russian survey from when that country controlled Alaska
  • coastal surveys are also important for national security…military operations need accurate nautical charts…having a baseline makes it easier to reopen waterways after a national emergency
  • the MTS is the “hidden highway”…“hidden transportation system”
  • nautical charts are essential to the growth of the “efficient”  marine highway…making use of the “underutilized waterways” to get trucks off the road

The captain mistakenly refers to the Verrazano Bridge as an impediment for the increasingly larger ships–it’s the Bayonne Bridge, both being in the Port of New York-New Jersey–but he is right to highlight that commercial shipping is no different than other modes in needing adequate infrastructure and mapping.  In the case of  bridges, another NOS navigation system–PORTS–enables ship pilots to know the air draft under bridges in addition to better understanding available channel depth.  It’s just that when the highway is “hidden,” as the water routes are, it doesn’t get the attention–and the resources–that the dryways get.   Pbea

Ports on the Secretary’s To-Do List

In Federal Government, MTS Policy on November 8, 2009 at 11:49 pm

The DOT Secretary’s blog–Fast Lane–noted this past Thursday that “port managers have a difficult dual mission to fulfill-–providing the critical interface between water and surface transportation, while handling both commercial and military cargo.”  The prior day he met with the National Port Readiness Network, including some port representatives.

Secretary Ray LaHood acknowledged in his blog that that dual mission “is much easier said than done. ”  “And I get that only the commercial side of their mission provides the ports compensation.”  He said “DOT wants to do all we can to help them meet these obligations.”

Back in March when Secretary LaHood addressed the spring meeting of the American Association of Port Authorities he was asked from the floor what the new administration was thinking in the way of a freight policy.  The cabinet member said his department had yet to give it attention, that implementation of the stimulus package was USDOT’s  immediate focus, and toward the end of the year he may convene stakeholders to start to develop a perspective on freight.

It sounds like he is ready to act on that idea.  In recent weeks he indicated to Kurt Nagle of the AAPA that USDOT will call port directors together for purposes that include an examination of freight issues.  The plan is to have a meeting–perhaps in New Orleans–this coming January.

He noted in this blog of November 5th two action items–a “port summit” and “a Presidential initiative to integrate planning” with DHS.

The former appears to be focused on the port authorities–the public agencies with port jurisdiction.  A government to government conversation makes sense.   But will the Secretary at some point also enlist the private sector side of the ports–the terminal and vessel operators–in a confab to examine freight issues?  And will this be the start of a concerted effort in the Secretary’s office to develop an overdue Federal freight policy?

The latter is a reference to a $15M item in the current year budget–also in the Senate version of the DOT appropriations bill.  “This will help develop and modernize the freight infrastructure that links coastal and inland ports to highway and rail networks,” LaHood said in the blog.  We’ll have to wait and see how that  intention will materialize in actual projects.  Earlier this year MARAD folks said that some or all of it may be applied to marine highway initiatives.

We’ll see how these two items on the Secretary’s to-do list develop.  In the mean time it’s good to know that Secretary LaHood wants to listen to the ports and focus some resources on the MTS.   Pbea

Putting an ! on Intermodal

In Intermodal, Marine Highway on November 6, 2009 at 6:39 pm

It’s been talked about for a while but the talking is over.  J.B. Hunt Transport Services did a major deal with Norfolk Southern Railway.  According to the Journal of Commerce (November 6, 2009):

Hunt said the accord “will further establish the parties as the leading providers of transcontinental and local intermodal service in the eastern half of the United States.”

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The new deal with NS, the trucker said, gives both partners “a platform to accelerate the conversion of traditional truck traffic to cost effective, environmentally friendly intermodal transportation with service that is competitive with truckload moves.”

It makes great sense (not that the folks at the two companies need affirmation from this quarter).  But if one thinks in total system terms, they are only making use of two-thirds of the surface system capability.  They are using only one-half of the available high capacity, high efficiency modes.

If the maritime stakeholders make the effort to fix Federal policy and put the U.S. Flag in fighting trim it’s only a matter of time before a Hunt or a Schneider–or, yes, a CSX–will do a deal with, or acquire, a “Blue Water Transport”.   The press release will tout…

“a new deal that gives partners a platform to accelerate the transition of traditional  land mode traffic to cost effective, environmentally friendly intermodal transportation with service that is competitive with coastal corridor moves along the congested interstate highway.”

It will be the starting shot.   Pbea

Hours on the Road, Time on the Water

In Marine Highway, Surface Transportation Policy on November 6, 2009 at 5:59 pm

The rules of the road will help define the market for marine highway services.   A prime example is the Hours-of-Service (HOS) regulation that limits the time truck drivers can spend behind the wheel.  These are excerpts from American Shipper of October 29, 2009.  (The links are mine.)

The U.S. Department of Transportation and its Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on Monday agreed to revisit rules on hours of service for truck drivers to resolve a lawsuit by safety advocacy groups and the Teamsters union.

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The hours-of-service rule allows drivers of commercial vehicles to drive up to 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours off duty. The rule also has a 14-hour maximum workday limit so that drivers have to clock off even if they haven’t driven all 11 of their allowed hours. And drivers must take a 34-hour break after being on the job seven or eight consecutive days.

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The trucking industry objected to the original changes five years ago, which added an extra hour to the maximum time behind the wheel but shortened the overall work day and the restart period, but has since adjusted to and supports the current rule.

Trucking companies comply with Federal requirements and adjust operations accordingly.  One adjustment may be in how they schedule drivers for long hauls.  If the daily allowable driving time is reduced under revised HOS regs then one response could be to substitute vessels for a long leg of the long haul.  Instead of dispatching a driver for the full trip put two drivers to work on the short hauls between the origin/destination points and the ports at either end.

The authors of “Operational Development of Marine Highways to Serve the U.S. Pacific Coast,” which recently appeared in the Transportation Research Record (September 2009), see that potential.

Marine highways are viable for longer routes such as those from California to the Pacific Northwest, where truck rates are higher and both distance and trucking hours-of-service regulations permit vessels to be time competitive at lower speeds. (from the abstract)

One of the authors is Ron Silva of Westar Transport, a California trucking firm that understands the operational benefits of  a transportation system that would make it possible for trucks to spend time on the water.   Pbea

Next WRDA a Policy Bill?

In Infrastructure, Water Resources on November 3, 2009 at 3:29 pm

WRDAlite2

WRDA (say “wurr-da”) sometimes is an elusive, even mythical, thing.  When it appears out of the Capitol Hill mist–like Brigadoon–it’s not with the reliable–albeit once-in-a-hundred years–clockwork of that fabled village.   It is usually defined as a biennial water resources authorization bill but it rarely takes such predictable, finished form as a president might come to expect on his desk every two years…assuming he wants it there.

Part of WRDA lore (and lure) is that it is tailor made for end-of-congress action on the eve of congressional elections.  Before returning home Members would wrap up the bill and their press releases touting what WRDA holds for their districts.  For, above all, a Water Resources Development Act is a projects bill.  Indeed part of the legend–not without  good reason–is that for WRDA to get through Congress it must be laden with projects.  No projects, no critical mass.  No critical mass, not enough aye votes.

WRDA 2007, the most recent version made law, was propelled in part by the huge Everglades project.  It was not without controversy but as an environmental restoration project the Everglades project gave the bill essential critical mass and acceptability among many in the environmental community which often is critical of project bills.

Legislators submit their wish lists.  Even many Members who disdain the practice of earmarking.  Port channels.  Beach replenishment.  Flood control.  Environmental projects…these ever more so.  They include wastewater treatment, water supply and the like.

The foundation of any WRDA is projects that move “through the pipeline,” much as the Everglades restoration project did.  They are subjected to Federal feasibility and environmental studies and then Secretarial and White House review.  An interminable process to some.  Projects exit the pipeline, usually, as recommendations for formal authorization,  WRDA being the next step in a civil works project’s journey through government.

When it comes to critical mass, it looks as if WRDA 2010 could end up WRDA Lite.  Fewer projects and lower cost.  So far only a couple of projects have emerged from the pipeline.  Some folks suggest we may have more of a WRDA policy bill than a projects bill.  That’s possible.

As one example, ports have wanted the law changed to secure the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.   Harbor Maintenance Tax revenues go into the general treasury and only around 60 percent of the proceeds actually are spent on channel maintenance.   There’s meat for a WRDA.

We will have to see whether there will be sufficient oomph of any sort to power this next WRDA.  We may get a clue later this month.  The House Water Resources & Environment Subcommittee will hold its first WRDA hearing  on November 18th. Pbea

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