Marine Transportation System

Make Time for Maritime Policy

In Federal Government, Marine Highway, MTS Policy on July 2, 2011 at 11:37 pm

The piece below appears in the June 2011 edition of the Eno Transportation Foundation newsletter, EnoBrief.  I appreciated the invitation to pen something on a maritime theme and decided to continue on the topic of American maritime policy, which is in need of attention.  Comments are welcome.  Pbea

“Now, what about our national maritime policy?” posed Norman Mineta in 2007, no longer Transportation Secretary, before answering himself. “Frankly, it is comparatively meager and unfocused.”

In his remarks to an industry finance audience he drew comparisons to the other modes that are more completely housed at USDOT, underpinned by substantial programs and funding, and enjoy large, strong and active stakeholder bases.

The former cabinet officer and present day Eno Board member’s prescriptions to address the sector’s ailments included things that might explain his waiting to address this “comparatively meager” sector only after he was out of office.

He said his recommendations can be accomplished “by overcoming the inevitable opposition – not only from without but from within.” He continued, “Within the maritime industry there are many agreements of mutual mediocrity.  People…will not want to see it changed.  The ground is shifting under their feet and they imperil needed financial investment and the innovation and the efficiencies it brings.”

He also mentioned some difficult issues that “need to be addressed within the industry” but “they are not reasons to oppose raising the importance of maritime issues on the national agenda.”

Secretary Mineta thought there was reason to issue an urgent call.  “Compared to the resources and focus that we have devoted to surface transportation and aviation, I believe we must quickly and dramatically increase our attention, our funding, and our national purpose with respect to maritime issues.  To fail is to become a second rate economic power with a decrease in our quality of life here at home and a reduced ability to effect change in international affairs.

“Simply put:  the United States must develop a comprehensive maritime policy and implement it through a thoroughly reorganized federal structure.” He said the public sector “must work with industry stakeholders to educate American citizens and their decision makers regarding U.S. reliance on a strong national maritime system.”

Four years later his concerns about maritime policy still deserve consideration.  And while Secretary Mineta’s remarks did not dwell on the issue of “ships and crews” the vessel aspect of present policy also warrants attention, especially if marine transportation is to play a role in addressing some of our nation’s transportation challenges.

The declining American flag presence in foreign commerce is being examined by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, which prompted USDOT to commence a study, soon to be completed, to quantify the competitive disadvantage of American shipping.  Facing a competitor that flies flags of convenience, builds ships in China and Korea, and hires low wage crews the American operators will always find it tough to capture market share.

So let’s drill down to examine the protected American market. Not surprisingly, much of the Jones Act trade is carried in dry and liquid bulk vessels that lend themselves to commodities like grain and petroleum.  As for container shipping, the Jones Act fleet has only 26 vessels in service with a total carrying capacity of 56,631 TEU.  Most of those are in the Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico trades. Sixty-eight percent of American container vessels (including barges) are at least 26 years old with 41 percent exceeding 30 years. (One can’t resist noting that a major program at the Maritime Administration is managing the disposal of U.S.-flag vessels.)

Meanwhile the capacity of U.S. commercial shipyards to build container and roll-on/roll-off ships is rapidly diminishing.  The Aker Philadelphia Shipyard is surviving for the moment on an emergency injection of State funds to build to ships on spec.  Aker, General Dynamics’s NASSCO Shipyard (CA) and Bay Shipbuilding (WI) announced layoffs last year. All 5,000 jobs at Northrup Grumman’s Avondale facility (LA)—a defense shipyard that could convert to commercial construction—are slated to end in 2011.

Why talk about U.S. container and ro/ro ship capacity?  Secretary Mineta, his successors at USDOT, and others have suggested that marine highway development is not only needed but inevitable for goods movement here.  The reasons include the mode’s inherent efficiency, its intermodal capabilities, public benefits to be derived from shifting part of the growing freight burden from land routes, and the extensive use of short sea and waterway service in other developed nations. Congress acknowledged as much by enacting the “short sea transportation” provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

But to realize any of the above benefits—not to mention the renewal of a shrinking industry—these are needed: 1) a modern Jones Act fleet capable of meeting tough emissions standards effective in 2012, 2) cost-competitive commercial shipyard capacity to build the fleet, 3) vessel financing, 4) sufficient trained seamen and officers, and, let’s add, 5) a clear signal that Washington does not want America to lose its capacity to move goods on the water.

This telling is absent a call for or against Jones Act strictures. There are arguments for the status quo and for alteration.  But, as Secretary Mineta might say, the existence of the Jones Act in a world where cabotage requirements are commonplace is not reason “to oppose raising the importance of maritime issues on the national agenda” and reversing a decline in the American maritime sector.

“Now, what about our national maritime policy?”  

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