Marine Transportation System

Archive for 2012|Yearly archive page

Two Trust Funds in Search of a Solution

In Infrastructure, MTS Policy, Ports, Water Resources on October 25, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Yesterday Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander (R) stood near Chickamauga Lock in Chattanooga and said, “We have two trust funds to deal with waterway infrastructure like the Chickamauga Lock, and neither of them works.”  He tells the truth.

The senator and former governor convened a presser to preview legislation–the American Waterways Act–that he and others will introduce when Congress resumes its session after the November election. The still in draft bill would tackle some financially challenging issues because the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (river system) and the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (for the most part coastal ports) are both at the center of current navigation infrastructure problems and the ultimate solutions to those problems.

The IWTF fund, with collections from a fuel tax on commercial vessels operating on the inland system, raises insufficient funds for what is a large, backlogged demand for lock and dam construction and rehab work. The users of the system have proposed changes in cost-sharing as well as increases in the fuel tax.

As has been discussed elsewhere in MTS Matters the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is a problem of a different kind. The ad valorem tax on cargo raises sufficient funds to cover the nation’s channel maintenance requirements but the Administration and Congress do not spend O&M funds at a rate commensurate with collections. The crafters of the planned bill are said to be working on how to assure annual appropriations at full-use levels as well as to free the accumulating surplus–now above $7 billion–for port projects.

The greatest challenge in drafting the legislation is the high hurdle presented by congressional budget rules. Based on what we have heard, the drafters intend to enable  the spending of tens of billions of dollars for construction and maintenance work over a 5 to 10 year period.  Even if the existing and future collections from the fuel and cargo taxes can handle that, as is the plan, Congress would have to effectively waive budget rules to get past procedural barriers. That doesn’t happen often. Moreover, it would require consensus among the key actors and probably a majority in the House and a super-majority in the Senate.

And while there has been significant growth in the ranks of advocates on these issues, solutions to the IWTF and HMTF problems have yet to achieve that kind of consensus.

The AWA–if it isn’t premature to assign an abbreviation to a measure not yet introduced–would have other provisions.  Senator Alexander identified these:

  • address regulatory and permit process streamlining projects by adopting the MAP-21 approach to speeding projects;
  • shift the 50/50 cost-sharing requirement for coastal channel maintenance from 45 feet to apply to those channels deeper than 50 feet;
  • open the HMTF to now ineligible port projects, to include landside projects (especially to satisfy ports like Los Angeles that don’t have much in the way of O&M dredging needs);
  • authorize a 5-year construction program to advance projects to deepen ports to accommodate post-panamax ships needing around 50-foot depths (to include Charleston and other planned deepenings that meet the present 3.0 benefit/cost test);
  • make the increasingly expensive Olmsted Lock project on the Ohio River a fully Federal responsibility, which would free IWTF resources to start other waiting construction projects; and
  • require the Federal government to follow the Inland Waterways Capital Development Plan developed by the industry and Corps of Engineers for an increase in the fuel tax and a 20-year schedule for projects.

The guts of the Inland Waterways Capital Development Plan were put into legislative language found in HR 4342, the WAVE 4 Act,  introduced earlier this year byRep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY). Worth noting, the Administration put forward a different proposal to address the ITWF problem and had been at loggerheads with the industry with no agreement in sight.

The likely sponsors of AWA are from both parties and will include principal sponsors Lamar Alexander and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), plus others who may include Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).  Feinstein and Alexander are the lead senators on the appropriations subcommittee that funds the civil works program.

Why are senators talking about introducing a controversial reform bill soon before the 112th Congress comes to a close? There are several answers, one of which is that the House and Senate are preparing to tackle major fiscal and revenue decisions (see “fiscal cliff“). Resolving the navigation trust fund problems could be made easier as part of the larger debate.  Also, as I mentioned in The WRDA Mantra post, an effort may be made to move water resources legislation (WRDA) during lame duck.  The AWA is squarely in WRDA territory and Alexander needs to be ready to jump on-board even if the odds of WRDA advancing are slim to none.  Push come to shove, the senators who introduce the AWA bill this year will be staking claim to the issue in the next congress.

Let’s face it.  The American Waterways Act, as it has been developing in the months leading up to Senator Alexander’s announcement, is an extremely ambitious package.  It will entail getting Congress to approve significant hikes in commercial navigation project spending, increase the fuel tax, venture into the touchy subject of expanding uses of the HMTF, and streamline permitting on some water resource projects that have been a favorite target of environmental conservation organizations…none of which are reasons to put a halt to such ambitious foolishness.

Said Lamar Alexander yesterday, “The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund collects a lot of money, but doesn’t spend it well. The Inland Waterways Trust Fund doesn’t collect much money, but spends it well. This bill would fix the way our ports and waterways are funded so that we can meet the challenges they face…”

Here’s a challenge for a do-something Congress.  Pbea

FMC on HMT: Unintended Consequences

In Congress, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Ports, Water Resources on October 18, 2012 at 11:52 am

In July the Federal Maritime Commission released a study that claims a relationship between the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) charged in U.S. ports and logistics decisions that result in some imports bypassing U.S. gateways and moving through Canadian ports to American destinations.

Concerns at the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma that the HMT are tilting the competitive field prompted the study.  These are long standing concerns that predate the cargo fee.

In the mid-80s Congress eventually acceded to the Reagan Administration’s insistence that the cost of maintaining Federal coastal channels be recovered through a new user fee.  The main question was how to collect the fee, which at that time was proposed to cover 40 percent of channel O&M.  It is now 100 percent.

The issue of maintenance fees and cost-sharing on improvement projects—another Reagan demand—prompted a split among port authorities. A “small port coalition,” consisting of ports of all sizes, many of which handled cargo that made it easy to find political allies, wanted to avoid a fee that would burden low margin cargo such as export grain and coal.  Some of those ports with outsize channel maintenance requirements fought any suggestion that the new policy require their dredging costs to be supported by fees collected in their ports.  If a port had to rely on its cargo volume to cover its dredging costs the New Yorks, Norfolks, and Oaklands would have an advantage, not to mention those ports with naturally deep water.

Notwithstanding the efforts of the “large port coalition” that dominated the container trade and favored a charge on cargo tonnage, the small port coalition had success in defining the revenue mechanism. Key committee leaders, most notably Chairman Bob Packwood (R-OR) of the Senate Finance Committee, settled on a fee that would go easy on American export commodities and, as it happens, raise a tidy sum for the new Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The new HMT would be applied to cargo value, not tonnage.

Seattle and Tacoma (members of the large port coalition, for the curious reader) opposed the HMT provision. They sought to be exempt from the cargo fee, fearing the advantage it would create for nearby Vancouver, B.C. in the container trade. (Did they even imagine a Prince Rupert was in their future?) Their objections to the HMT won them only a section in the new WRDA ’86 law that tasked the Treasury Department, where the Customs Service was located, to study and report to Congress on any effect the HMT had on diverting cargo from U.S. ports.

A year or so later Customs reported back with its conclusion: no effect of diversions.  With no formal report to refer to one wondered how Customs arrived at that determination.

In the 25 years that passed since the HMT became law we have seen the tax increase from 0.04% to 0.125%, the Supreme Court quickly came to a 9-0 decision and voided the HMT on exports, and the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund’s unexpended and seemingly untappable balance has ballooned to over $7,000,000,000.

Through those years, and with the addition of Prince Rupert to American West Coast woes, the Sea-Tac ports have pressed the argument that the HMT contributes to the loss of cargo. The fact that those ports benefit little by the HMT revenues—they require little in the way of dredging—is salt in the wound.

Enter the Federal Maritime Commission. Washington State senators asked the FMC for analysis of the extent to which the “HMT and other factors impact container cargo diversion from U.S. west coast ports to west coast Canadian and Mexican ports.”

The FMC was fertile ground for such a request. In the 1980s Maryland Port Administration attorney Richard Lidinsky energetically fought “Canadian diversion.”  Today he chairs the FMC.

The FMC inquiry commenced in late 2011, public comments were received, and the resulting “Study of U.S. Inland Containerized Cargo Moving Through Canadian and Mexican Seaports” was released in July 2012.  The conclusion: no FMC related law or regulation is violated in the use of the Canadian ports but the HMT plays a role to the extent that it adds to the cost of transportation.

The FMC study noted that ports compete on “a wide variety of variables.” (Such was the essence of the shipper and carrier comments–easily the most detailed and responsive comments submitted in the public process–that didn’t confirm the report’s presumption that the HMT is a factor in decisions to use Rupert.)  The study found no significant difference in cargo transit times moving through the U.S. and Canadian gateways. It acknowledged that the rates through Prince Rupert are lower but stated that other factors in the supply chain make it “difficult to conclude that transportation costs are significantly lower.”

The study employed a ports elasticity model developed years before by Dr. Robert Leachman. The FMC concluded that if the HMT (estimated to average $109 per FEU) were eliminated in the Sea-Tac ports, or if an equivalent charge were put on the U.S. bound cargo when crossing the land border, “up to half” of the containers “could revert to using U.S. west coast ports.” The report concluded that the HMT “does appear to be one competitive force that is not based on natural competition, but may indeed be a legislative disadvantage on some U.S. ports” i.e., an unintended consequence.

What is one to make of the study?  It is not conclusive in the way we like to have questions settled.  The FMC document has its critics within the agency, with two commissioners voting against its release. One called it “a political policy paper to justify a predetermined conclusion.” The other wondered why, if the HMT is such a discouragement, does Canada-bound cargo use U.S. ports?

After 25 years do we yet know the extent of the problem, assuming it is a problem?

If anything, the study gives Sea-Tac and their advocates in Congress something to quote as they lobby for a fix. One such fix, an exemption from the HMT, is not in the cards. (Why would other ports go along with that?)

Legislation has been drafted to apply an equivalent charge on U.S. cargo when it crosses the land border (a “land border loophole”?), the revenue from which might be put to making freight improvements. But is the FMC study enough to convince Federal policy makers to slap a fee on cargo entering through Canada or Mexico? Dress it up to look like a user fee to support infrastructure improvements but it still will come off as a penalty for not using an American gateway. The cargo interests will fight it, probably the railroads, too. And don’t expect the Commerce and State Departments and the White House Trade Representative to be mute on the question.

The valuable but imperfect HMT (title  for another blog entry?) continues to create problems while feasible solutions elude us.  Meanwhile, look to the east. There on the horizon are Nova Scotia ambitions to establish a Rupert-on-the-Atlantic.

The fight against the HMT is 25 years long and counting.  Pbea

The WRDA Mantra

In Congress, Infrastructure, Water Resources on October 16, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Perennial Question: Will there be a WRDA?  Perennial Answer: Eventually.

The WRDA question is one of the more predictable queries heard over the course of every two-year Congress.

It is legislative Zen among the water resources community in Washington where mind-and-body is focused on achieving “WER-da.”

Likewise, that focus is found in the hinterland where flood control, navigation, shore erosion and environmental restoration projects are the infrastructure of economic stability and survival.

The Water Resources Development Act and its ancestral statutes dating back to the early years of this country are the bases for the civil works program conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of the Nation, States, municipalities, ports and communities.

For the better part of the 112th Congress WRDA has been missing inaction (pun intended).  But at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing just weeks ago WRDA was anything but dead. The urgency to get a bill done was the message of the day that Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) wanted everyone to know.  Her witnesses, requiring no prompts, were on-message.

The U.S. Chamber, International Union of Operating Engineers, Cargill, the American Association of Port Authorities, and the American Society of Civil Engineers said for the record why it is important for Congress to produce water resources legislation.

As the absent Ranking Minority Member James Inhofe (R-OK) said in his printed statement, “Our witnesses are here to further demonstrate the case for passing a WRDA bill.”  And so they did.

They talked about infrastructure integrity, jobs, trade, economic growth, competitiveness, etc. There were no hard questions, only ones to elicit a single response. {We want WRDA.}

“I hear you,” said Chairman Boxer.

Everyone including those committee members present talked toward the same goal of producing a WRDA bill to address various economic, infrastructure and public safety needs. One senator, observing that the one key witness not present for a hearing on this subject, the Corps of Engineers, made the point that significant reforms in the Corps civil works process are needed in the next WRDA.  The witnesses also said reforms and process streamlining are needed.

In her opening statement Barbara Boxer said “there’s no reason why we can’t get WRDA done.”  She held up as a model the bipartisan MAP-21 surface transportation bill that the committee produced earlier in the year and now is law.

Senator Boxer spoke in fully bipartisan terms. Pointing to how the labor and business witnesses were sitting side-by-side at the table before her she said that was purposely done:  “I want to make the point that we are united.”

The chairman said the hearing was to lay the groundwork for action in the lame duck session after the election. She told her colleagues that in the next weeks she will send around a draft bill and wanted their comments and suggestions. It’s going to be a bipartisan and “strong” bill.  Senator Inhofe‘s statement referred to how the lead senators already are “working hard to negotiate a WRDA bill.”

Senator Boxer asked the witnesses if they would be ready to work to get WRDA done much as stakeholders worked to see MAP-21 made law. They said they will. The supporting statements of other trade groups were added to the hearing record. No doubt they are unanimous in their views. {[We want WRDA.}

Congress adjourned a few days later for the final campaign stretch. The House and Senate will return for what promises to be a contentious lame duck session to address some unfinished items not the least of which is the looming “fiscal cliff.”  We’ll see then if Chairman Boxer is able to form a water projects and policy bill with her party  opposites on the committee.

I’m not clever enough to thrive in Vegas but I can handle this odds analysis. It’s not a good bet that a WRDA bill will become law this year.

In a short amount of time Boxer and Inhofe will have to get committee consensus on what can be the politically, and sometimes environmentally, touchy subject of water projects back home. The civil works process itself has been a particular target of senators who know the problem but lack agreement on a solution. Assuming the Boxer-Inhofe committee comes to agreement on detailed legislation the bill will have to be good enough to pass muster in the full Senate where one senator’s objection in the last weeks of Congress can kill a bill. Then there is the House where the no-earmarks rule has chilled even the thought of a WRDA bill escaping from the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. Then there is the White House, which continues the long tradition of executive disinterest in the civil works program.

It’s a bumpy road ahead.

Chairman Boxer, who along with others of her colleagues genuinely want to move WRDA through Congress, put a good face on things at the hearing. Alas, there is little time left. After the election who knows how much interest legislators will have in the hard work of producing a projects and policy bill when some of them are packing up to leave Congress and others just want to get home for the holidays.

Then again, as Senator David Vitter (R-LA) said in noting it has been five years since WRDA 2007 was made law, the committee should start now even if their efforts have to extend into the new Congress that convenes in 2013.

Eventually.    Pbea

One Hundred Percent Security

In Congress, Federal Government, Ports, Security on July 23, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Not even Ivory Soap is 100 percent.  It may float but, as the once ubiquitous slogan puts it, Ivory doesn’t do better than “99 and 44/100 percent pure!”

So if the blue chip labs of Proctor & Gamble can’t deliver a simple matter of 100 percent pure soap why should anyone think it’s possible to implement 100 percent cargo scanning before the boxes hit our shore?  …Or think 100 percent secure U.S. coastlines is possible. Okay, sure, that last one sounds a bit silly but we’re dealing in facts here.

In the months following the attacks of September 11 former Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS) insisted that America could be completely secured along the over 12,000 miles of seacoast. A tight seal that would catch whomever and whatever might dare to sneak into our collective nightmare.  He persisted, earnestly, in pressing that point to a hearing witness, a retired Coast Guard rear admiral who found it hard to believe the congressman was serious.

In more recent years the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has struggled with that kind of no-exceptions, no-excuses expectation. The sort that has plagued the TSA for much of its existence. Congress directed the U.S. agencies to go forth and have image and radiation scanning equipment installed in every overseas port that exports containerized cargo to the U.S. We don’t want terrorists to view our ports as easy gateways for nuclear weapons guised as consumer goods.

One result of al-Qaeda proving the nation’s vulnerability was an almost immediate national awareness of our seaport system. Open doors in the global village. America had security in place at airports–tragically loopholed as it was–while at our ports the Federal agencies were on the lookout mostly for contraband, plant disease, and the occasional stowaway. Flood-lit attention quickly zeroed in on the seaports and land borders. Persons such as Stephen Flynn filled the vacuum as government and news agencies required expert testimony and quotable expressions of alarm.

The policy response was understandable. New laws, quickly crafted regulations, and a flood tide of security personnel. A new department was created when small-government Republicans largely dominated in Washington.

By 2007 two maritime security laws had been enacted and a considerable security regime was in place in our harbors, on cargo ships and in the supply chain. Countries and companies trading with the U.S. were told to meet our terms. Hundreds of millions of grant dollars were spent to harden security in large and small ports. (Over $2,000,000,000 for port security grants since then.) Funding also was provided for three pilot tests of 100 percent scanning  in overseas ports. Then Congress upped the ante.

A new “full-scale implementation” requirement was put in place to deny entry to cargo containers unless they were “scanned by unobtrusive imaging equipment and radiation detection equipment at a foreign port before it was loaded on a vessel.” The shipping/logistics industry explained why that wasn’t good policy or particularly feasible. Nevertheless a deadline of July 2012 was set for 100 percent scanning along with authority for the Secretary of Homeland Security to extend the deadline as necessary.

Not surprisingly, in June Secretary Napolitano reported to Congress that the deadline would not be met and has pushed out the compliance date to July 2014.  Months before, the GAO gave testimony on the state of containerized cargo security.  It is a readable statement about the layered, risk-based security regime that is in place and the challenges the government has experienced both here and abroad in securing the country against smuggled nuclear devices.

The legislators stand 100 percent behind their 100 percent requirement. In an op-ed piece three House Members acknowledge that the original deadline was ambitious but want to keep the pressure on an executive branch they doubt wants to see full-scale implementation. “Cost and technology have never been the primary obstacles to meeting this mandate. What is missing is a sense of urgency and determination.” Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) said in a Washington Post story, “I personally do not believe they intend to comply with the law…. This is a real terrorist threat, and it has a solution. We can’t afford to wait until a catastrophic attack.”

Don’t expect this issue to be resolved anytime soon. Few in Congress will go on record to remove the requirement.

Should we expect–even want–100 percent security at any cost? In a global supply chain so extensive and complex is absolute security possible? Ask voters if they are willing to be subjected to metal detectors and armed guards at their local Loews Cinema after what just happened in Aurora. Where will the next troubled mind chose to bear arms?  At the Harris Teeter meat counter?

In 2002 I met with the fellow who headed the transportation branch at the Office of Management and Budget. He and his colleagues were struggling with the budgetary response to September 11. They faced the practical questions of what can be afforded even when we had horrific cause to be generous with tax dollars–and indeed, the money flowed–and whether unlimited spending could really make the nation secure. How do we determine risk in order to set priorities? Could money buy the “full-scale” securing of the American transportation system? How does one make a public transit system 100 percent secure?

Go to the Ivory Soap website–actually a Facebook page–and you see this absurdly-reassuring corporate statement that could be a Madison Avenue rewrite of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. “Ivory provides freedom from nonsense and complexity by giving you everything you need and nothing you don’t.”

Just don’t look for 100 percent.   Pbea

Now They’ve Gone and Done It!

In Congress, Infrastructure, Surface Transportation Policy on July 3, 2012 at 9:54 am

Washington, which is to say Congress, got it done.  Really.

The “it” is the surface transportation authorization legislation that sets the programs for highway, transit and related infrastructure–hereafter referred to as MAP-21 (“Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century” for those of you who feel a need to know.)  The bill, H.R. 4348, won bipartisan approval of both chambers by large margins.

The roughly $52 billion per year measure’s importance can be gauged by the fact that the soon-to-be law determines how much the States and transportation agencies will receive for system maintenance and improvements. It also sets national policy for everything from truck size and weight to reducing transportation emissions to traffic safety.

MAP-21 is the successor to the 2005 SAFETEA-LU (no, I won’t spell that one out for you). Arguably, MAP-21 is a significant successor. It includes some reforms recommended by national commissions that were formed–and informed–by the earmark-excessive SAFETEA-LU.  It also contains provisions on two areas of interest that are, in their own way, groundbreaking: freight and channel maintenance.

Back in 2005 once the dust had cleared following the House and Senate negotiations that produced SAFETEA-LU the freight interest groups were surprised to see the main freight infrastructure funding provision laying there in the dust.  It had been cut out.  It took the Freight Stakeholders Coalition–ports, railroads, shippers, truckers, you name it–no time to regroup and work to get–seven years later–freight policy provisions in the next bill.

Today there is reason for celebration. While a $2 billion National Freight Program didn’t survive the conference some freight provisions were adopted in the final version that is going to the White House for signature.

  • A National Freight Policy is established with goals to improve the “condition and performance of the national freight network.”
  • A National Freight Network consisting of critical freight routes and other routes on the interstate system and in rural areas, is to be designated by the Transportation Secretary.
  • USDOT is to prepare a National Freight Strategic Plan in consultation with States and public and private stakeholders. The plan is to identify freight gateways and corridors (and their bottlenecks), future freight volumes, and needed improvements.
  • USDOT is to report on the condition of the freight network and improve data and planning tools to support outcome-oriented infrastructure investments.
  • States are encouraged to develop freight plans and organize freight advisory committees to give stakeholders input into freight project planning.
  • In lieu of a separate allocation of funds for freight projects the bill offers an incentive for freight project funding by allowing the Secretary to reduce the non-Federal share of a project’s cost if it meets criteria for improving freight mobility.
  • The bill also increases to $1 billion (over a five-fold increase) the popular TIFIA credit assistance program and authorizes $500 million for Projects of National and Regional Significance (PNRS).  Both of those have been particularly helpful in financing large freight related projects.

The other noteworthy provision in MAP-21 isn’t nearly as significant in dollar and program terms but deserves a mention.  In this so-called “highway bill” is a provision bringing attention to the underfunding of port channels and the continuing Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund problem.  The best that the House and Senate sponsors of the RAMP Act legislation could achieve was to get “sense of Congress” language that reminds the White House and Congress that the full measure of HMTF resources should be spent each year to keep U.S. port channels at their most efficient.

It was much less than the RAMP Act supporters (I among them) wanted but there is a legitimately positive way to spin it.  For the first time Congress–in the surface transportation bill, no less–acknowledges the need to make full use of the user-paid revenues to maintain the underwater highways for shipping. It is a stepping stone to greater funding as I suggested a few months back after the House Appropriations Committee approved a record $1 billion to be spent from the HMTF.

Let’s be clear. MAP-21 is not all that it should have been. For starters, it is only a 2-year bill compared to its 4- and 5-year antecedents. Why? Because the House, Senate and Administration conspired to avoid the crucial issue of new revenue as if it were a tick infested bed of poison ivy. Yes, that is a kicked can that you see down the road (to double down on metaphors). The corollary to that is the inability of the legislation to afford the demonstrable need for greater funding for infrastructure  improvements and maintenance.   The funding in the bill is half of what it should be.

The surface transportation bill also is not as multimodal as it should be. It is time for rail and domestic marine freight transportation to be folded into the nominally intermodal surface transportation policy. Commuter rail is. Passenger ferries are. The adage “freight doesn’t vote” continues to apply.

With the exception of rail freight project eligibility for TIFIA and PNRS financing the program remains a predominantly highway one. It’s time we move to a different policy paradigm that addresses transportation infrastructure needs in modally neutral terms.

But let’s not spend too much time lamenting what should be but isn’t. The legislators returned to their home offices over the Independence Day recess able to say they got something worthwhile done on a bipartisan basis.  Imagine that.   Pbea

Stalled and Sinking

In Marine Highway, MTS Policy on June 10, 2012 at 11:13 pm

POLITICO, the Washington, DC daily journal, published a story on May 22nd by reporter Jessica Meyers on one of my favorite topics, marine highway development. I had hoped for more but then a partisan, as I am, is always hard to please.

It was the multiple titles sitting atop the various pages and editions of the piece that got to me. Like taunts from the headline writer. “Industry appears stalled on marine highways.” “Federal marine highways project hard to launch.”  And one that elicited a quiet groan, “Marine highways projects often sink.” All for a single article.

You’d think one title would suffice.

It’s hard to argue with the conclusions of a writer whose research uncovers little evidence of successful services, hears sources say there is no market or that it is still being identified, and then calls it as she or he sees it.

Let’s face it. The shelf isn’t lined with gleaming trophies of winning marine highway projects.

Then there was this piece that appeared the next day in Lloyd’s List entitled “Built in the USA.”  “Tobias Koenig’s decision to withdraw financial support from American Feeder Lines…has opened a fresh debate on the US-build requirement of the 1920 law.”

Whether the frustration of a European shipping investor (“we intend to profit from the opportunities, and to profit well”) who had hoped to reinvent American coastal shipping and ship building has given us a fresh debate, or is just another log to grow the flames of the US-build debate, isn’t so important.

The fact is the debate continues and the heat is being felt. Others–whether Hawaiian shippers or Connecticut-based Per Heidenreich–are among the more recent voices for change.  The US-build requirement is typically the target.

The above articles point to the challenge facing marine highway service start-ups and the broader Jones Act container/trailer carrier community whose market is pretty much limited to the non-contiguous trade and whose fleet has far too many old fuel burners for the new Emissions Control Area (ECA) age we are about to enter.

Two weeks prior to those articles going to print The Maritime Executive folks convened a long planned “Revitalizing the Maritime Industry” forum. It was a Jones Act centric program and audience, although there might have been some outliers in the room.

The two-day program opened with a plainly stated concern about how the Jones Act industry today finds itself in the position of having to defend the cabotage principle instead of the onus being on challengers to explain why it would be in the nation’s interest to allow the Jones Act walls to tumble.

John Graykowski, former Deputy Administrator of MARAD and Jones Act advocate, said at the opening of the forum that “the future isn’t as clear or…as bright as any of us would like it to be.” He noted “challenges” that don’t seem to diminish and “an ever present growing threat” to the Jones Act. He pointed to fewer maritime industry advocates today in government, and to challenges to the cargo preference program and the protected non-contiguous trade.

In the background, as one easily took from the forum’s title, was the fact that important elements of the Jones Act industry have been in decline for too long a time, a condition that the marine highway effort hopes to reverse.

Along the way there were unequivocal and unchallenged statements heard in the hall as to the importance of the domestic maritime sector to the nation, the competitiveness of American crews and the competitiveness of American shipyards. Also heard was the immutability of the Jones Act.

The problem isn’t that it is broke, the message went. The problem is that aggressors are gathering at the gate and our defenders are fewer. This is a time for a collective “gut check.” The walls must be defended. Whatever happens, the law ain’t gonna change.

A few people with microphones suggested the need for some flexibility in the law. A short term reflagging of suitable, foreign built ships to enable a demonstration of marine highway service in the North Atlantic is an example that I suggested. (I argued that position on behalf of American Feeder Lines in its attempt earlier this year to win government approval of a limited waiver with the condition that US-built ships would be ordered to replace them.)

There were Jones Act defenders in the room who themselves are frustrated with the no-exceptions perspective. But it is a frustration that is not given expression in public, certainly not in a gathering such as this.

Cabotage is a principle important to the national economy and defense. However, as I suggested in a presentation at the forum, the present law is nearly 100 years old.  “I don’t think that living in the twentieth century today is necessarily how we get” to a revitalized American industry. The principle is sound but how we get to a revitalized industry, including a stronger shipbuilding sector, is the question.  Once revitalized the industry can be more successful in defending both the principle and the gate.

MarEx Editor-in-Chief Tony Munoz, convener of the event, concluded the program by saying the forum and the attendees are the “tip of the spear” to “move this agenda forward.”

But, I wonder, will preserving every jot and tittle of the status quo be the only element of that agenda?  Pbea

An earlier version of this appeared in the “Deep Water Port notes” newsletter of the Connecticut Maritime Coalition.

So Spake the Freight Stakeholders

In Congress, Federal Government, Intermodal, Surface Transportation Policy on June 4, 2012 at 11:49 am

The Freight Stakeholders Coalition–a group of 18 or more organizations–spoke  freight to power.  But in today’s Washington, where the policy makers often wear policy blinders, will the Deciders (to use Dubya-speak) listen to the goods movement call for change?

Back in 2005, when SAFETEA-LU came out of the House-Senate conference cooker, the Stakeholders were dumbfounded to realize that the negotiators cut from the bill a key freight provision on which there had seemed to be agreement.   It was a 2 percent set-aside funding requirement for freight related projects.

It didn’t take long for the Stakeholders to regroup, this time in sync with the 50+ State DOT leaders (AASHTO), and produce a 10-point paper making a collective case for goods movement policy.    Still feeling the SAFETEA-LU sting years later the Stakeholders sent a letter to House and Senate conferees–the people tasked with coming up with a surface transportation bill to send to the President.  The letter contains the 10-point paper and concludes:

Now more than ever, the needs of our goods movement network must be addressed as system use continues to grow in lockstep with America’s recovering economy. The inclusion of a national freight plan with supporting policies, strategy and funding will help ensure America’s international competitiveness, create jobs and bolster the U.S. economic recovery.

But will the conferees–who largely take their cue from a small number of party and committee leaders–get it done?  As we learned from the sad SAFETEA-LU experience just because there are fairly substantial freight provisions in the MAP-21 Senate bill (S. 1813) doesn’t mean the final product will take goods movement seriously.   Besides, the House-passed version (H.R. 4348) was a Plan B vehicle to get to conference with the Senate.  It doesn’t have freight provisions.  For that matter, the version that was reported from the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, but which failed to get to a House vote, H.R. 7, contains little in the way of substantive freight provisions.

Will the conferees get it done?  Larry Ehl rightly has cause to ask a more basic question: Are Transportation Bill Negotiations on the Rocks?  Ben Goldman also see bad news clues.  Pessimists, which may include most who work around Washington these days, would observe that this particular Congress seems to want to get not much done.  Some legislators–tea partiers especially–would proudly label that an achievement.

I still think it can get a bill done, however, despite a significant push by the private sector for strong freight provisions, one wonders what the House conferees will agree to.  Moving on…

Days after sending their letter to the conferees the Stakeholders gave cheers for a senator’s letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

In her letter of May 31, Maria Cantwell (D-WA) told Secretary LaHood to “tear down bureaucratic barriers and inefficiencies” in the modally stove-piped department by creating a freight-focused operation in the Office of the Secretary.  The senator pointed to ways that her home state has realized benefits of “freight coordination, prioritization, and collaboration” between the public and private sectors.

Over the years Congress has been importuned to create a freight office, establish an assistant secretary post for goods movement, etc.  But silly arguments about expanding government and creating new bureaucracy usually keeps those ideas from being given a serious hearing.  The implementing agency of national transportation policy remains structured as if the modes rarely if ever meet.

But as we know, in the real world they are meeting with ever increasing frequency as the market seeks ever more efficient ways to getting the job done.  On dock rail.  Intermodal yards.  Trains to airports.  Boxes shuttled from trucks to ships to barges to trucks to rail to….

The senator’s letter speaks to the need for a  “high-level and coordinated multimodal freight initiative.” *  She reminded the Secretary he doesn’t have to wait for Congress to create a formal structure.

… I strongly encourage you to establish a high-level and coordinated multimodal freight initiative at the U.S. Department of Transportation using your existing administrative authority.  If established, this initiative office should report directly to you, include a special assistant designated with specific responsibility for freight movement, and endeavor to improve federal freight policy, planning, and investment across all modes.

Or as one might say in Obama-speak: Yes, he can.

Secretary LaHood is leaving the Obama Administration later this year.  Let this be his gift to his successor.  He can set up a freight office down the hall from his own.  He can start the process of directing the DOT stovepipes, which in truth do talk to each other about some freight objectives and the occasional project, to be even more intentional about it.  He can ask his modal administrators and freight staff for their input on how best to get it done.  But most of all he can make a serious effort–as serious as his pretty effective distracted driving campaign–to bring his department and government policy to where the mostly private sector freight innovators have been for a good long while.   Pbea

* Kudos to the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors for its diligent efforts in advancing the freight message on Capitol Hill.

HMTF: A Bump and RAMP Strategy

In Infrastructure, Ports, Water Resources on April 27, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Bump and RAMP doesn’t sound like a sophisticated legislative strategy.  It certainly isn’t a complicated one.  But when one is talking about the world of dredging one must do what one can to make it sound interesting.

As I’ve discussed previously the RAMP Act is an attempt to remedy a failing of current law.   A tax is collected on some of the beneficiaries of port infrastructure–specifically channels, turning basins, anchorages–in order to cover the cost of maintaining–specifically dredging–that Federal navigation infrastructure.

You can read about the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) by going to previous postings:  RAMP Gets Its Chance and  The Seven Billion Dollar Clue.  (Hmm…those like a lot like Hardy Boys titles.  Who?…oh, never mind.)

The procedural (point-of-order) solution in the RAMP legislation is not a complete solution.  There is nothing to mandate full funding of channel maintenance.

Absent an automatic funding mechanism that effectively bypasses congressional appropriations–which ain’t happening–the president will have to budget for channel maintenance every year and Congress will retain the prerogative to decide how much to spend.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow ports and other stakeholders have to make the case to Congress in support of the Corps of Engineers channel maintenance program.  While the RAMP lobbying effort, led by the dredging industry, has proceeded so has the routine effort to increase the level of appropriations for channel maintenance. Bumping up the annual funding has been the persistent and particular point of emphasis for the American Association of Port Authorities along with others.  And the effort has seen success.

Since FY 2009 the appropriation from HMTF funds has progressively grown from $773 million to $833 million in FY 2012.  The FY 2013 budget, now subject to appropriations committee attention, estimates $839 million will be used from the fund.

Most, but not all, of the appropriated amounts apply to port O&M costs.  Some goes to dredged material management facility construction, offsets for St. Lawrence Seaway tolls on the U.S. side, and for administrative overhead costs. If we look at the HMTF allocation to O&M the growth over that same timeline has been from $737 million to $767 million, in actual spending, and $779 million budgeted for FY 2013.

That’s modest growth, especially considering the fact that over the same period HMTF annual revenue (HMT receipts + interest) grew from $1.253 billion to an estimated $1.864 billion in FY 2013.

But it is growth in a time when Federal spending isn’t exactly growing like gangbusters.

One might attribute the growth to the RAMP effort, which commenced in 2008, and to AAPA’s bump-up strategy.  Those complementary and not exclusive efforts have shone a bright light on the inconvenient fact that the infrastructure maintenance buying  power of dedicated user-taxes has been capped while Federal-managed channels are allowed to shoal.

As of this writing, 44 percent of the House Members have cosponsored Rep. Boustany’s RAMP Act (HR 104) and over one-third of the Senate has signed on to Sen. Levin’s S. 412.  Those numbers reflect a bipartisan sensitivity to taxes collected but not used-as-promised as well as a greater awareness of the correlation between full-depth channels and the ability of U.S. exports to compete successfully on the global market.

That increased appreciation on Capitol Hill for the muddy, mundane world of maintenance dredging explain the two most recent and significant developments to date.

First, the House of Representatives voted, by voice, in support of full funding of Federal channel maintenance.  The vote was an easy one.  It doesn’t have an enforcement provision,  so there is nothing in the approved amendment to ensure full funding in future appropriations.  That explains why the amendment–a watered down HR 104, also sponsored by Rep. Boustany–didn’t have the opposition of committees that object to the RAMP Act as well as any other proposals for mandatory spending from trust funds.

That said, it is slightly stronger language than the “sense of Congress” provisions contained in the House and Senate transportation bills and which simply say what the Administration and Congress should do.  So, for the first time, the full House is associated with the view that the total spending from the HMTF should equal HMTF revenue.

Second, and quantifiably more significant, the House Appropriations Committee this week approved a record level of funding from the HMTF for FY 2013.   It is a handsome, marvelously round number of $1 billion.  It is over $150 million more than in the president’s budget, which itself represents an increase.

We don’t know as yet what is the comparable HMTF allocation on Senate side but the draft committee report is quotable:

The Committee understands that the O&M budget fluctuates from year to year due to periodic maintenance dredging requirements, however, the general trend should be for this budget to increase.

Yes, indeed…all the way to the annual level of user-taxes being paid to keep the channels fully maintained.  So far, the trend is in the right direction.  Pbea

That Transportation Can Got Kicked Again

In Congress, Infrastructure, Surface Transportation Policy on March 30, 2012 at 11:51 am

Congress this week again extended SAFETEA-LU by approving H.R. 4281, what might reasonably be labeled the kicking-the-can-down-the-road road bill.  This 9th extension buys 90 days of time for the House and Senate to come to terms on a new, surface transportation authorization measure.   And while putting off a decision on a multi-year bill is not favored by stakeholders the alternative—a complete expiration of program authority—would be far more problematic.  (The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee release refers to “a devastating shutdown of highway and bridge projects” if the Senate didn’t follow suit.)

The Senate-passed MAP-21, S. 1813, which garnered 74 votes in that chamber, was touted by Senate and House Democrats as the simple answer to the House Republican Leadership’s unprecedented dilemma of having difficulty amassing sufficient votes to approve a surface transportation bill that was reported from committee nearly 2 months ago. But that short-cut to a final bill was unlikely for reasons including House rules.  House Members approved the extension, through June, by a vote of 266 to 158.  The vote was held off until a couple days before SAFETEA-LU was to expire and legislators are to start a two-week recess to give the Senate side few options other than to take the House extension or risk program shutdowns.

Attempts were made by Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to substitute the short-term H.R. 4281 with her 2-year MAP-21 but her motions failed to win the necessary (to make for speedy consideration) unanimous consent.  Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) objected each time.  If Senator Boxer had succeeded the bill then would have to go back to the House where one might expect it to be blocked, MAP-21’s bipartisan credentials notwithstanding.

That doesn’t mean that the Senate bill doesn’t stand a chance on the House side.  The bill’s co-author is conservative James Inhofe (R-OK) and MAP-21 won the votes of a substantial number of Senate Rs.  And while Inhofe has stayed clear of the “pass MAP-21″ chanting another Republican–DOT Secretary Ray LaHood–hasn’t held back.  And there are others.

MAP-21’s urban and rural transit provisions are more to the liking of that sector and while its freight sections are not all that they could have been–major provisions produced in the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee having been left out on the way to passage–those titles have more to recommend than one finds in the House version. Among other things the Projects of National and Regional Significance category is given new life in the Senate bill.  (On the down side, neither bill goes farther than to offer an anemic “sense of” Congress provision on the growing problem of under spending Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund resources on navigation channels.)

So, expect the pressure to build for House action on a version closely resembling the Senate bill  if the Majority continues to struggle in assembling votes for its 5-year version, H.R. 7, the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act.

What now?  Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and John Mica (R-FL), chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, continue their recruitment effort to get sufficient votes to pass H.R. 7.  They face the opposition of many Democrats, which puts much of the onus on the majority side to produce the votes. The lack of earmarks in the bill certainly doesn’t help that but then part of the problem all along has been that the Republican Conference’s many anti-earmark freshmen just have not warmed to the idea of a 5-year, $260 billion dollar transportation bill.

And if you think a 90-day extension actually gives Congress 90 days to find common ground you don’t know Washington math.  There are fewer more than 30 legislative days on the calendar between today and the start of July…when the next extension may be needed.   Pbea

(An earlier version of the above appears on The Ferguson Group Blog at http://thefergusongroup.typepad.com/grants/2012/03/ninety-days-and-counting.html)

HMTF: RAMP Gets Its Chance

In Congress, Ports on February 14, 2012 at 11:33 am

HR 7, the surface transportation (and energy) bill that was reported from the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the wee hours of February 3, has a wee Water Transportation title whose only provision is hortatory language about full use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.

The HMTF, along with the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, was left out of the full-funding fixes that the transportation committees muscled through Congress for the highway and transit programs in 1998 (TEA-21) and Airport Improvement Program in 2000 (AIR-21).

Chairman John Mica (R-FL) wanted to do something to remedy that oversight and, for the moment, that something is the “sense of Congress” that the HMTF “is not being used for its intended purpose” and fails “to provide the service for which it was established is unfair and places the National at economic risk.”  The Administration “should request full use” for channel work and “Congress should fully expend” what is in the fund.

Optimistically, the language is a placeholder for something with a bit more teeth, specifically the text of HR 104, the RAMP Act, that Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA) and 171 colleagues sponsored in the hope of prying more out of the trust fund for deep draft channel O&M.  RAMP is an opaque acronym for Realize America’s Maritime Promise, the coalition that has advanced the issue.

HR 104 is modeled on the point-of-order approach employed in AIR-21 and which has had a role in leveraging substantial funding from the Aviation Trust Fund. However that doesn’t mean the procedural remedy would ensure full-funding from the HMTF. There is no guarantee. For that reason HR 104 is thought to have a better chance of winning Hill approval than would, for example, a mandatory spending requirement that is  the Hill committee turf battle equivalent of Iraq invading Kuwait for its oil.

The bill is intended to force the hand of the Appropriations Committees. But, you see, appropriators like to protect their prerogative to appropriate when, how much and for what. That explains why appropriations leaders are fighting RAMP. That and the fact that the appropriators have a long and bruised memory of being bested by one of Mica’s predecessors, Bud Shuster, in the TEA-21 and AIR-21 “truth in budgeting” fights.

There’s another reason. Assume the RAMP Act becomes law. If appropriators were forced to add, say, another $500,000,000 for channel maintenance they would have to do so within the parameters of the annual budget cap established through a separate budget process. If that cap isn’t increased by $500,000,000 then the added O&M money would have to come from other program areas. Having to cut a half-billion dollars is when it isn’t any fun being on the Appropriations Committee.

Chairman Mica decided on a strategy to add the HR 104 to HR 7 when the latter moved to the House floor for amendments. With 171 co-sponsors and a sustained advocacy effort on the part of ports, dredging contractors, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others, an amendment stands a pretty good chance. RAMP advocates also are pressing for the Senate counterpart measure, S. 412, to be added to the MAP-21 surface transportation bill, S. 1816.

On February 1, the Ways and Means Committee held a maritime taxes hearing. Rep. Boustany, who chairs the Oversight Subcommittee of the tax panel, used the hearing to make the case for his bill. He polled witnesses from four ports and Louisiana’s agricultural commissioner.  All spoke to the economic efficiencies of vessels operating at full capacity when provided sufficient channel depth. When allowed to make the most of a ship’s capacity US exports prove to be more competitive on the world market.

On February 3, Ways and Means met on a bill to extend the Highway Trust Fund related taxes, the essential revenue piece for HR 7. Ways and Means Committee does not have jurisdiction over the HMTF even though it does have jurisdiction over the Harbor Maintenance Tax. That didn’t prevent Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) from offering an amendment to 1) add the RAMP Act to the bill and, 2) increase eligible uses of the HMTF. Having naturally deep water the ports of Seattle and Tacoma are among a small number that have little need for channel maintenance funding and in that way do not benefit by the cargo tax collected in those ports. (See the fairness discussion in the previous MTSM post.)  Rep. McDermott explained that by expanding eligible port uses of the HMTF to include “infrastructure improvements or repairs” Seattle, for example, might obtain funding for a needed seawall project. As noted, the committee had no jurisdiction. The amendment was withdrawn. Rep. Boustany said he would work with Rep. McDermott on the matter.

This week on the House floor Boustany amendment #180 will be offered to HR 7. Rep. McDermott will attempt his amendment #178. And you can watch it all on C-Span.  Pbea

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.