Since the notion of American marine highways helping to mitigate landside congestion took root early this decade–along with the call for Federal policy and program–voices have been heard to ask, “so, where is it?” “What happened to those promised new short sea services?” Why isn’t [big box retailer] using coastal shipping?
Cynics who habitually dismiss the competitiveness of U.S. flag shipping eagerly seize opportunity to validate their view. Observers see their doubts re-enforced or just wonder if there is any there there.
Meanwhile, advocates are impatient for government to concur with the public benefits rationale by enacting major policy directives and funding game changing projects. (There is also the understandable impatience of entrepreneurial risk takers whose initiatives could use a short term assist to help establish themselves in the market.)
I count among those seeking a decisive boost for new marine highway operations. But expectations are tempered by the Washington experience. To keep our sanity folks here learn to tolerate the tortoise pace of policy-craft. We look for the smallish increments that represent progress, even as we look to accomplish greater things farther down the road.
So what progress has been made?
- Congressional hearings were held including this House hearing in 2007 and other testimony has been given.
- In 2007 Congress created the Short Sea Transportation program (SST) as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) which recognized that marine transportation is a very fuel efficient way to move things.
- In 2008 the Richmond, Virginia metropolitan planning organization (MPO), that region’s federally supported transportation planning agency, led an effort to initiate and support the 64 Express container barge service on the James River to bypass the increasingly impassable I-64 that runs north from Hampton Roads.
- In 2009 Congress authorized grants for marine highway projects that are selected by USDOT through SST. Separately, Congress appropriated $7 million, based on a $15 million request in the FY 2010 Obama budget, that USDOT is expected to use for selected America’s Marine Highway (AMH) projects, to use the MARAD program name.
Those are the highlights, added to by various research papers and reports. It is worth noting that the above achievements are not the result of a well-funded, cohesive effort by a powerful maritime industry lobby. (Indeed, one might argue that none of those modifiers apply, especially when compared to other transportation sectors.) They largely were achieved by decision-makers coming to recognize the inherent advantages of domestic marine transportation, and with the encouragement of various labor, port, public agency and private sector advocates (as well as the Coastwise Coalition that I chair) who have validated that policy direction.
So what progress will we see in the coming year or two?
- USDOT will announce the multimodal TIGER grants and we will learn if applicants whose projects would enhance new AMH services–such as Eco Transport (CA) and SeaBridge Freight (TX/FL)–are among the awardees.
- MARAD will issue a final rule for the SST/AMH program, designate AMH coastal and inland corridors, and call for projects.
- USDOT will report to Congress on hindrances to AMH development and make recommendations, some of which may resemble recommendations made to the Secretary in 2009 by the Marine Transportation System National Advisory Council.
- MARAD will issue a rule for the new grants program and, with the cooperation of the Secretary, will make every effort to award grants by October 2010.
- President Obama’s FY 2011 budget will include a specific funding request for SST grants.
- Congress will act on the legislation to exempt from the Harbor Maintenance Tax non-bulk cargo that moves between US ports and among Great Lakes ports.
- Congress will consider new surface transportation policy that to some extent will recognize how AMH routes can benefit traditional users of congested land routes.
That’s what I see happening. Pbea