Marine Transportation System

Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

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.

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