Marine Transportation System

Archive for October, 2012|Monthly 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

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