In a few days we will see if there is a maritime title, or section, in what is traditionally the highway bill. What’s that, you say? You heard right.
Back in July 2011 House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) let us peek at the planned contents of the surface transportation bill that finally will get its debut in committee on February 2nd.
That summary, aptly named A New Direction, included a description of maritime transportation provisions, which would have as much symbolic as substantive significance for those of us working the water. Including a few marine transportation provisions in the once-in-a-decade highway and transit legislation could prove to be a foot-in-the-door for more of the same when the next big surface bill comes along. (Some of us impertinently suggest that marine transportation in fact is a surface mode…the wet one.)
But one can argue that the foot has been in the door for quite some time. The passenger-oriented Ferry Boat Discretionary Program has been the lone marine transportation element in surface transportation policy and program since 1991 and the landmark ISTEA. Interestingly, the ferry program is managed by the Federal Highway Administration–a fact that some folks in the Maritime Administration probably still have difficulty acknowledging–because that is where the money is.
John Mica has for years talked about having a transportation “vision” that is intermodal, multimodal and makes greater use of the maritime. The Chairman’s intentions revealed last year with regard to a maritime title included three basic objectives:
- Ensure full use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund resources; only 60 percent of annual revenues are appropriated for channel maintenance.
- Encourage more maritime related activity including “short-sea shipping” by exempting cargo from the Harbor Maintenance Tax when moving between US ports.
- Improve Corps of Engineer civil works project delivery.
This week the committee will meet to produce the bill. There may be a maritime title with some placeholders to be added later. Here’s what we see in our crystal ball:
- The Corps project piece is not expected to be in the bill. Such typical WRDA subject matter may be held back more as a matter of legislative strategy than anything.
- Jurisdiction over the particular legislative remedy for the HMTF issue–contained in HR 104–is shared with the House Rules Committee where there is opposition to the so-called RAMP approach. Appropriators are fighting it as well. If RAMP isn’t included in the bill it won’t be for lack of trying by many stakeholders in the port navigation sector who have encouraged over 150 legislators to co-sponsor.
- Maybe the topic that has the best chance of getting in the new maritime title is the HMT exemption for non-bulk cargo. But because the subject is within the jurisdiction of the Ways and Means Committee Mica’s transportation panel is expected to defer to the tax committee on bill language (likely to look like HR 1533). So keep an eye on the Ways and Means hearing to occur this Wednesday. The HMT and HMTF issues will be heard and when that committee later meets to take up the transportation bill’s tax-related provisions we may find the HMT provision added. (The subject of the vessel tonnage tax also is to be brought up at the Wednesday hearing.)
It looks like a maritime title will have, at best, a couple provisions. But if by the time the surface transportation measure goes to the House floor its 1000 or so pages include a maritime title–maybe only a wet highway provision to go with the dry highway ones–we should take a minute to savor a small provision and an encouraging direction for transportation policy. Pbea