Marine Transportation System

Archive for the ‘Federal Government’ Category

Bottom Line Thoughts on the MTS

In Congress, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Marine Highway, MTS Policy, Ports on September 17, 2013 at 11:30 pm

AASHTO, the association of State DOT chiefs, issued this summer the last of its “bottom line” modal reports. This one–Waterborne Freight Transportation–is a useful addition to the studies and papers that indicate a marine transportation system in great need of policy attention. It is not that the MTS is in failing condition–certainly not that part engaged in international commerce–but “the very success of the MTS has masked serious underlying structural problems” that, if left unaddressed, “pose critical threats to the long-term health of the MTS and the nation as a whole.”

The report notes that unlike the American interstate highway system the MTS “has evolved without larger scale coordinated policy and planning.” Indeed the ports and related infrastructure and services that developed without a “master plan” make the MTS a “collection of competitors.”  Persons who follow action in the ports of Charleston and Savannah, both overseen by State port authorities and championed by their respective State legislatures, can be fascinated watching that competition in real time.

The AASHTO report, the focus of which lands principally on the MTS infrastructure, identifies areas requiring attention. Waterway maintenance needs are not being met, navigation projects often take far too long to accomplish, funding for MTS expansion needs is uncertain, national investments are not being effectively targeted to meet national needs, and responsibility for the MTS in official Washington is widely diffused.  That last item can be easily understood by looking at the “comprehensive matrix” spreadsheet on the CMTS website.

In a statement that could apply to maritime elements of the private sector as much as it most definitely does to government policy, the AASHTO report offers this bottom line thought: “Embracing business as usual will inevitably lead to significant further declines in MTS condition and performance, and to lost opportunities for our transportation system and economy.” Today, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, the nation’s inconvenient truth teller on matters infrastructure, and National Association of Manufacturers CEO Jay Timmons used the Philadelphia port as a backdrop for a similar message that is bolstered by a survey of manufacturers. “Improving our ports, highways, and bridges is essentially an economic driver. Modernized ports and transportation systems enable American manufacturers and businesses to export their goods to countries around the world, which strengthens our economy here at home,” said Rendell.

Much of that message in Philly and the AASHTO report is centered on international commerce, understandably. Ports and their modal connectors enable U.S. exports to make it to other markets in competitive fashion. They also speed imported goods to Costco shelves and components to American assembly plants.

One had to look for it, but the AASHTO “bottom line” document also makes the suggestion, however briefly, that the MTS can play an increasingly important role stateside. With reference to the potential for Marine Highway freight transport the document notes that “with growing highway congestion, waterborne transportation becomes an even more attractive transportation alternative.” It concludes with the statement that “[w]aterborne trade and transportation will be cornerstones of the 21st century economy.”

Among the actions called for in the report is the establishment of an office of multimodal freight at USDOT, an oft-made recommendation by various stakeholders and in the reports of appointed and self-appointed commissions. Among the tasks of the office would be to create a “system map and classification of MTS facilities, analogous to the National Highway System and the National Freight Network.” Congress specified in MAP-21 that the designated NFN be highway only, a decision that reflects more the congressional committee jurisdictions and the “highway bill” tradition than it does the multimodal operating freight sector. (A recently introduced House bill, H.R. 2875, grandly named the “Waterfront of Tomorrow Act,” would amend MAP-21 to “ensure that ports and harbors are incorporated into the national freight network.”)

The recommended freight office would also be used to prepare a “long-range vision plan for the national MTS development and investment to meet national transportation and economic development objectives.” The report also calls for full utilization of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund monies for navigation infrastructure maintenance as well as an exemption from the Harbor Maintenance Tax for “domestic Marine Highway services.”

These recommendations are pointed in a constructive direction. But there is a missing element in the report. More significantly, it also is missing from the national transportation policy discussion on Capitol Hill, in those many departments and agencies tagged on the CMTS spreadsheet, and in the White House, then and now.  What is missing is visible interest in what the national maritime policy need be. The weakest element of the multifaceted American marine transportation system, oddly enough, is marine transportation. The long, sloping trend line representing flagging support for U.S.-flag merchant shipping, an aging Jones Act coastal fleet that frustrates Marine Highway development, and a shrinking ship building sector needs to be reversed.  It’s far from being the cornerstone of the economy that it once was and perhaps still can be.  Pbea

The Late Senator Frank Lautenberg

In Congress, Environment, Federal Government, Leadership, MTS Policy, New York Harbor, Politics, Ports, Security, Surface Transportation Policy, Water Resources on June 9, 2013 at 11:53 pm

Frank_Lautenberg,_official_portrait

Senator Frank Lautenberg
1924 – 2013

Last Friday was a somber day of steady rain as New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. News reports this past week cited how his passing was notable because he was the last sitting senator of the “greatest generation,” that chamber’s last veteran of World War II. His death came just months after Hawaii’s Senator Daniel Inouye, a wounded veteran of that war, took his resting place among the nation’s noted military and civilian leaders at Arlington.

(They also had a common  interest in the MTS—the marine transportation system. Inouye was a reliable and principal advocate for American shipping; Lautenberg for the landside elements—the ports and intermodal connections. Both were friends of labor.)

It need be said that Senator Lautenberg’s death on June 3, also is notable because it marked the passing of a champion of Federal policy to making communities healthier, the environment cleaner, and industry and travel safer and better. It was a personal agenda well suited to his home State of New Jersey but carried out with no less than the nation in mind.

In his 28 years as a senator he served on virtually every committee and subcommittee that touched on authorizing and funding transportation, civil works and environmental policy. For a period he chaired the Transportation Subcommittee on Appropriations while as a senior member of the Environment & Public Works Committee (EPW).  For a few years after the attack of September 2001 he also was on the Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee. In recent years he chaired the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine, Infrastructure, Safety and Security Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee (CST). In recent years he served on EPW, CST and Appropriations, including the Corps funding subcommittee, concurrently.

As was evident in his committee work his approach to legislating was to cover all the bases, or at least as many as he could. He championed improving airports and the aviation system, expanding the use of transit and passenger rail, modernizing freight transportation, bringing American port infrastructure to world standards, and securing them all from the those who would do us harm.

He was appointed to the President’s Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism after the tragic downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and returned to the Senate, after a two-year hiatus, to help write and oversee anti-terrorism law after the downing of the World Trade Center towers. In those towers he had served on the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey before being elected senator in 1982. His time with the Port Authority–and his building the Automatic Data Processing Corporation (ADP) from scratch–were credits on his resume in which he took great pride and enjoyed telling people about if the occasion would allow.

Frank Lautenberg put much effort into environmental issues. He gave his attention to the recovery of old industrial wastelands through brownfields initiatives and Superfund legislation and to making the Toxic Substances Control Act more effective. He was protecting the coastline whether the recreation beaches or the nurturing marshlands. In his last year he walked the Jersey Shore in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, secured bi-partisan support for his toxic substances legislation and, from his wheel chair, cast his final vote in support of tighter gun legislation.

He was a tough fellow and could be an relentless advocate.  Just ask the trucking industry that couldn’t budge him from the centerline where he stood in the way of increasing truck size and weight limits year after year after year. Ask the FAA whose employees’ merit increases were at risk while their work was incomplete on the redesign of East Coast airspace in the Newark/LaGuardia/JFK market. Ask Norfolk Southern and CSX who found the Senator immovable on key issues pertaining to assuring competitive rail service for his home port when Conrail’s assets were on the block. Was he always the advocate that some of us wanted him to be? No, but then you rarely find a senator who is that agreeable.

From start-to-finish Senator Frank Lautenberg was an advocate for his New Jersey and his United States, which he strove to make  better by improving the quality of people’s lives and the means of commerce.    Pbea

(A version of this ran on The Ferguson Group blog.)

 
 

What’s the Big Deal about Public Works?

In Congress, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Ports, Surface Transportation Policy, Water Resources on March 9, 2013 at 12:04 am

Questions of the Remotely Curious:

  • Why should I care if Congress approves a WRDA bill…and what’s WRDA anyhow!
  • So what if the surface transportation bill expires!
  • What business does Washington have to do with the  sewage treatment plant the county is trying to build!
  • And why the hell does the Army Corps of Engineers have anything to say about clearing the muck from the marina where I keep my boat!

Yeah, and what’s the big deal about public works!

The average person who has no experience with government-at-work might be given a pass if he made such not-really questions.  The average Federal elected official should be expected to know…or at least quickly learn…the answers.

Would it surprise you to learn that too many folks in Congress today don’t know and…judging by the rhetoric…may not care.

Over 200 persons were first sworn into House of Representatives membership in just the past four years.  Many of them came to reside in Congress without prior legislative or other public office experience; many came with the intent to shrink government and cut spending. While those objectives are worthy of debate we are seeing in the fiscal brinksmanship and political gun play (“Call of Duty 6: Fiscal Warfare”?) how the give and take of real debate has been hard to come by here in Washington. (Consensus? Fugetaboutit.) New congressional Republicans, those of the Tea Party strain, have been a particular challenge for their Republican colleagues who came…well…to legislate.

Not too deeply into the last Congress Rep. John Mica (R-FL), then chair of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, came to publicly bemoan how a troubling number of freshman who were assigned to his committee had little interest in producing the aviation and surface transportation bills that were overdue for Hill attention.  Mica publicly would cite the large number of legislative neophytes who–oddly–were poised to vote against the meat-and-potato policy and program of a public works committee. Why? Because they said they took the trip to Washington to gut government and its budget.

So it is to Chairman Mica’s credit that his committee eventually did produce the transportation authorization bills, albeit ones that didn’t adequately address the full cost of tackling the nation’s infrastructure needs.

Today, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) heads the committee.   He faces the same challenge as his predecessor, Mica, and expectations as his father, Bud.  From the get-go he identified his committee objectives, which include the first water resources bill (WRDA) since 2007 and a robust surface transportation reauthorization bill including possible funding initiatives to repair the failing revenue stream for the Highway Trust Fund.

The chairman knows a price tag comes with maintaining and improving American infrastructure but he is all too aware that for some in the House and Senate it is a price they may be unwilling to pay. So before Shuster rushes headlong into bill writing he wants his colleagues on the committee and in the House to learn why it is essential for Congress to take up these issues. He has been conducting “roundtable” sessions for his committee members so they may hear from trade associations and other public and private sector stakeholders. He convened a hearing with a 101 course title–The Federal Role in America’s Infrastructure—and a Peaceable Kingdom kind of witness list.  And he has called on any and all persons who want to see transportation and infrastructure bills to get past third base to start their own education efforts on Capitol Hill.

Maybe, just maybe, the 113th Congress can be the did-something Congress.

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

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

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.

Functional (Not WTF) Government

In Federal Government, Leadership, Politics, Surface Transportation Policy on August 2, 2011 at 3:51 pm

~ Political Drama in Three Acts ~

Cast:  Persons who come to positions in government to make a point and others who come to govern.  Neither conservatives nor liberals alone are cast as good at governing.

Forward:  Some like wielding power but their interest wanes when it comes to the nuisance of making government function well. Governing can get in the way of principles, pledges and making points. For some, government isn’t complicated; it’s just in the way. It’s the root of all ailments. They reach for the lancet with no less confidence as to the result than did medical men whose all-purpose remedy was to bleed the patient. Governing is not always done well, which makes it easier for the talented among the electeds and civil servants to stand out. 

I.  The urge to rant about the needlessly protracted debt ceiling decision-making is resisted here.  Today Congress finally sent “the deal” to the White House.

There is little evidence of  the art of politics; instead we witness the game of brinkmanship. Think playing chicken on a narrow country road. In the the driver’s seat are persons with an unswerving belief in what government shouldn’t be and a disinterest in the map of governance.  (They also sign a pledge to drive the car without benefit of headlights.)  They would just as soon call people names than to the negotiation table.

Props to the White House writer who came up with this for President Obama: “…for the first time ever, we could lose our country’s AAA credit rating…because we didn’t have a AAA political system to match…”  

That some people did come to town to be Governers may be what eventually pulls our national fanny out of the fire but one fears that the flames will burn hot for a good while longer.

Governers brought about the Simpson-Bowles fiscal reform commission, sweated over the details of its report, and were prepared to act on that report. Governers tried to make the “Biden negotiations” work…and didn’t walk out.  Governers make up the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Six.”  Whatever terms of agreement over fiscal policy to emerge from the fire over the next year will be founded in such efforts.

II.   The House panel that held longest to a bipartisan spirit in an era of increasing rancor is the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  Road projects know no party as the saying goes.

In July, Chairman John Mica (R-FL) released the highlights of his planned surface transportation bill.  It read much as he said it would.  Reforms, consolidations, and reined-in spending to match reduced Highway Trust Fund revenue. It is based on harsh reality and a tax-averse party caucus.

That interest groups responded with concerns about program eliminations and slashed funding was hardly surprising but the response from Mica’s Democratic counterpart was.  Nick Rahall’s (D-WV) sharp words may not sound unusual in today’s Washington but observers noted the change for a committee where the chair and ranking member stand together on most things and respectfully disagree on the rest.

In the last scene is the Federal Aviation Administration bill.  Mr. Mica takes on both House Democrats and Senate counterparts of both parties over disputed issues in the long unresolved bill that authorizes funding for aviation programs. He put a provocative provision in the House-passed extension and dared the Senate to not approve it. It didn’t. As Congress beats it out of town for the August recess this other Capitol stand-off leaves USDOT holding the bag with 4,000 non-critical FAA staff forced to stay home and contractors around the country ordered to stop work on airport projects.

III.   Not without reason many States are concerned, even alarmed, at the damage that can be done by non-indigenous invasive species.  Great Lakes States have a long history of struggling with what can arrive in vessel ballast water.  But what concerns certain regions of the country also concerns the United States and other nations.

Solutions to an international problem carried in the tanks of global shipping rightly belong to Washington and the International Maritime Organization.  A patchwork of regulation at the State level is opposed by the maritime community that values uniform rules from port to port.

When New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued its regulation the response from the industry was predictable and especially vigorous. Why? Besides being imposed at the State level it set an un-enforceable, technologically unachievable standard that initially is 100-times more restrictive and, later, 1000-times tougher than the IMO standard, which the US Coast Guard also is expected to require initially. (A committee background memo provides a summary on the issue.)

Governor Andrew Cuomo and his environmental commissioner inherited the DEC requirement that the agency regulators have insisted on despite all reasoned arguments and documented findings to the contrary.  Those regulators made individual vessel operators–a thousand?–apply for an extension of the implementation date so they would not have to meet the un-meetable standard.  They were held in suspense until February 2011, beyond the implementation date, when DEC finally sent out letters of extension. Most recently, Steve LaTourette (R-OH) decided that New York was not taking the concerns of others seriously. So he did something to get Albany’s attention.

Perhaps reason will prevail.  Industry and other States from whose waters shipping would be effectively barred if the regulation is enforced in New York waters await a decision by the new administration.  It’s called governing.   Pbea

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?”  

The Mineta Speech as a Starting Point

In Federal Government, MTS Policy, Surface Transportation Policy on March 30, 2011 at 11:34 pm

Former Secretary Norman Mineta provided a service in making his 2007 speech on the maritime sector (excerpts found starting here).  Since he went to the trouble, let’s use his suggestions as a starting point for an overdue discussion on rethinking and recharging US maritime policy.

Secretary Mineta called for moving maritime related functions of other agencies to the  Maritime Administration and renaming the agency according to the “Federal [ ] Administration” template used for the other modes.  There are 18 or so departments and agencies with program interest in marine transportation including USDA, NOAA, EPA and the Navy.  Reason enough to create an interagency Committee on the Marine Transportation System (CMTS).  Perhaps some functions could be consolidated in USDOT.  Others not so easily.  The navigation portion of the USACE civil works program, one that often is mentioned as a prospect, may not transfer well.  Not that the status quo is worth maintaining.  The excruciatingly-slow project evaluation and preparation process has ports pulling out their metaphorical hair.  But it’s not simply a Corps of Engineers process failing but one that Congress abets by being very unreliable in implementing the key stages of project authorization and funding.   The channel program is ripe for change.  But it is not a given that USDOT is the best place for it.  For that matter, program consolidation can cause problems as much as fix others.

The former Secretary suggests that MARAD must shift its focus to the condition of the nation’s ports and away from its long attention to “ships and crews.”  Actually that shift started during the Clinton Administration under Secretary Federico Pena.  He gave attention to port issues (including the dredging process) and MARAD has done all it can to grow its portfolio in this direction.  The agency has functioned as project manager for federally funded port projects in Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and elsewhere. (Mostly with DOD money.)  The 111th Congress authorized MARAD to manage such “port infrastructure projects”as money is made available.

I disagree with Mr. Mineta that there is too much focus on ships.  As long as there is a US flag requirement (see Jones Act), a diminishing shipyard industry and capability, and a US merchant fleet that is a shadow of its former self someone should pay it attention.  Clearly current law and policy isn’t getting the job done.  For that matter, I can’t recall a modern administration of either party that has cared much about cargo moving on US flag vessels.  (No, I won’t go back as far as Roosevelt.)

The suggestion also is made to rename the US Merchant Marine Academy and “give it our time and attention.” Reports issued during the Bush and Obama administrations, including one called “Red Sky in the Morning,” made clear that oversight and investment had been lacking at King’s Point.  So a turnaround effort continues today with Kings Point being .  But let’s face it.  Why bother making it a top notch maritime academy if the effort isn’t being made to grow the anemic maritime sector?  It would be nice if the young men and women who want a career in the merchant marine can actually find good paying jobs there.

Secretary Mineta suggested that if “ports and waterways funding is always being relegated to parts of the surface transportation bill, or the defense bill, they will remain second-class subjects…” He is saying that the sector needs, in effect, a SEA-21 much as there were TEA-21 and AIR-21—the highway and aviation authorization bills of the 1990s.  A dedicated maritime bill to advance maritime policy and related projects.  I think a maritime bill is in order, especially for addressing failings of current policy and the paucity of programs tuned to today.  But as long as Washington continues to think in terms of modal stovepipes the marine stovepipe will remain offshore and remote from the “surface” modes, system development and corridor planning where intermodal policy, transportation solutions, and major projects tend to be reserved for road and rail.

Marine transportation related provisions belong in an intermodal, multimodal surface–wet and dry surface, if you will–transportation  bill.

More on this subject to come.  Comments welcome.   Pbea

The Mineta Speech, Pt.3

In Federal Government, Infrastructure, Leadership, MTS Policy, Ports, Water Resources on February 8, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta offered his audience at the North American Port and Intermodal Finance and Investment Summit recommendations “we can act on immediately” to address the inadequate “role of maritime issues in our national transportation policy.”    Here are Pt. 1 and Pt.2. Pt.3 follows…

It struck some people as a bit odd.  Here Norman Mineta was talking about changes that are needed to strengthen U.S. maritime policy but he waited until he was out of office  to raise them.  Perhaps these were ideas that coalesced in his mind only once relieved of the day-to-day tasks of office.  Maybe not.   Ultimately it didn’t matter.  At least he was raising them now.

“What is the path to victory?  I have ten recommendations we can act on immediately.  Some are major and some seem to be minor, but are critical to success.

“First, the Federal government must reorganize the Maritime Administration – MARAD.  I would rename it for what it should become – the Federal Maritime Administration, and I would combine virtually all of the Federal maritime responsibilities there.  It should reinvigorate the uniformed Federal Maritime Service and transfer the aids to navigation responsibilities from the Coast Guard to it.

“The portion of the Army Corps of Engineers whose responsibilities and capabilities for our domestic ports and waterways should be relocated to the Federal Maritime Administration.  The Army performing as domestic civil Federal engineers is not a role for the military and the country would save money and get a better product if these services were transferred to a single maritime agency.

“Secondly, the new agency must shift its focus to the condition of the nation’s ports and waterways and the role of this infrastructure in the totality of the U.S. transportation system.  The current agency has too many of its resources and its structure focused on the issue of ships and crews.

“Thirdly, the Merchant Marine Academy in Long Island should be renamed the National Maritime Academy.  It should be a Federal service academy where every graduate must perform his or her service in the Federal Maritime Service or as a commissioned officer in one of the other services as they do now including the Department of Homeland Security.  This Academy is one of the major assets of the Federal government and we need to give it our time and attention.

“Fourthly, the Federal government must develop a legislative reauthorization process that puts maritime issues on the same priority and level of importance that surface and aviation assets currently have.  If ports and waterways funding is always being relegated to parts of the surface transportation bill, or the defense bill, they will remain second-class subjects where the hope is to get your particular project an earmarked status.

“Fifth, the U.S. must revitalize its role in international maritime organizations and its maritime relations with other countries.  Whether its treaties or issues involving security and trade, the U.S. needs to give more time and attention to these areas.

“Earlier I said to achieve this refocus on maritime importance, state and local governments, port authorities, and other government entities reliant upon maritime trade must work with industry stakeholders to educate American citizens and their decision makers regarding U.S. reliance on a strong national maritime system.

“Therefore, I believe the next set of actions should begin with port and waterway interests and industry stakeholders – including financial players who want to enter this sector – creating a national association whose charter is to accomplish the following action items:

“Educate the Congress and the presidential candidates on the role of the national maritime system and get hard commitments to take action.  Educate American decision makers and others on the role maritime assets play in how freight and goods are delivered to them.  Then enroll them in the effort to get maritime’s fair share of infrastructure resources.

“My final recommended action is that you accomplish all of the above by overcoming the inevitable opposition – not only from without but from within.  Within the maritime industry there are many agreements of mutual mediocrity.  People are familiar with this system and 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.

“Also, there are issues that need to be addressed within the industry – labor agreements, the role that technology will play in the labor force, and how security issues will be addressed.  These are important issues that need to be vigorously debated and resolved – but they are not reasons to oppose raising the importance of maritime issues on the national agenda.  Take a side in these issues, fight for them, but do not let it dominate the larger objective.

“Finally, for those of you who are looking for quick investments in ports and maritime infrastructure, I’m not sure I’ve given you a lot of useful information.  And for you I’m afraid there is more bad news.  There are no quick rates of return to be made here.  Private investment into ports and infrastructure will have to be a true and long-term partnership.

“The up side as we say is that this is an industry that has the potential for tremendous growth and to have a real impact on our national transportation system.”

So there you have it.  A message that is important not so much for the specific recommendations made–although there are some good ones there–but for the fact that he was putting the spotlight on a problem that few public officials and industry people bother to talk about or even acknowledge.  See the next post for some additional  thoughts.   Pbea

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