Marine Transportation System

Archive for the ‘Water Resources’ Category

Congress Got It Done

In Congress, Government, Infrastructure, Legislation, Ports, Water Resources on May 23, 2014 at 1:13 pm

While strolling through the park one day
In the merry merry month of May
I was taken by surprise…

Two recent May events are fresh in mind. Maybe not of the surprising sort but perhaps, eventually, capable of the unexpected. On May 6th the Maritime Administration convened its second symposium aimed in the direction of a National Maritime Strategy. And just this week, Congress gave final approval to the first water resources development act legislation enacted in seven years. Both have significance to the maritime sector but, for the time being, we may be able to gauge the significance of just the one.

So, let’s talk WRDA…rather, WRRDA.

You don’t have to have inside-the-beltway know-how to know what “werda” is.  For nearly 50 years, and for more than a century earlier under different names, WRDA has been the path that harbor deepening and inland waterway projects—not to mention flood protection and shore and environmental restoration projects—have taken to Federal approval.

Project ideas graduate from feasibility studies to be authorized for funding by Congress. WRDA is how the Harbor Maintenance Tax and Trust Fund became law in 1986. It is how the near-completed 50-foot deepening in the Port of New York/New Jersey was authorized in 2000. And it is how the Corps of Engineers will be given the go-ahead to deepen and otherwise modify channels in the ports of Boston, Savannah, Jacksonville, Canaveral, Palm Beach, Freeport, and Corpus Christi.

Those ports, and various States and counties, will be relieved when the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, HR 3080, is signed by President Obama.

Passage of WRRDA 2014 was cheered in the halls of Congress. To be sure, some of the voices heard where those of lobbyists, but more prominent were the self-congratulatory speeches and tweets (#WRRDA) let loose by the legislators, especially those with projects at stake. Even Tea Partiers, who two years ago questioned why Congress should even have a role in public works, voted for the conferenced measure and made floor speeches hailing its importance to their town or to the national economic interest.

No small amount of pride was declared in proving to themselves and to the nation that Congress is capable of agreeing on major infrastructure legislation despite the fractious partisanship and anti-spending sentiment that has come to characterize this town. The bill’s reforms and deauthorization provision, which will dump $18 billion in previously authorized projects, provide the calculated and rhetorical coverage they consider essential to allow them to vote for a bill with an estimated, eventual cost in the neighborhood of $12 billion.

Yes, public works can be costly. Of course, not building such infrastructure also can be costly.

If there is an indicator that the conservatives have been hungry to vote in the affirmative on an [insert favorite jobs creation modifier] infrastructure bill and to show that Congress can do something, it is that only four House members opposed final passage despite it being a Heritage Action “key vote.” Only seven senators—also Republicans—opposed the final bill this week.

It helps that some planned projects—including unsexy port channels for goodness sake!—have in recent years been regularly reported across the country as important to US competitiveness in global commerce. The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee leadership used it early on to educate colleagues and the public alike. Who hasn’t heard that the Panama Canal is being expanded to accommodate big ships? They must not have been listening to the President, the Vice President, the news media, etc.  Those are the same ships that the aforementioned ports in Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida, New York and New Jersey, among others, hope will come their way.

WRRDA lacks the earmarking that turned some in Congress sour on public works legislation. Instead it prescribes a more detailed process by which the legislature will receive and act on project recommendations. It is a rational process, devised on the House side and intended to be something other than earmarking while reserving the prerogative for Congress to authorize projects i.e., not leave it to the Executive to make the decisions.

The added “R” in the bill is more than for show. Reforms to current law and practice are many. Some are intended to speed the famously bureaucratic civil works process. Others introduce new process and calculus to how Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund monies are budgeted and appropriated. (I may devote some words to that in a future post and so will limit my comment here to wishing “good luck and great wisdom” to the folks at Corps headquarters whose task it will be to interpret and implement the intent of Congress.)

It will have to be seen how well the reforms will enable the Corps of Engineers to meet, and will hold them to achieve, a 3-year study mandate, for example. One test of that will be the extent to which project sponsors are willing to leave the fate of their projects in the hands of Federal planners and analysts. That is because the bill gives more flexibility to project sponsors, such as port authorities, to study, construct and finance their projects. As we have seen in Florida and South Carolina, financial commitments are being made in State capitals in order to get projects constructed and completed well ahead of whenever Federal process and funding get done.

So there is a lot in WRRDA to cheer, not the least of which is the fact that it is done. And should the congressional committees actually live up to the sense of Congress, in Section 1052, to wit, “Congress should consider a water resources development bill not less than once every [two-year] Congress,” there will be even more to cheer in the years ahead.   Pbea

The Murray-Cantwell Approach to Problem Solving

In Competition, Congress, Infrastructure, Intermodal, Water Resources on September 23, 2013 at 7:05 pm

This past week State of Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell introduced the Maritime Goods Movement Act of 2013 (S. 1905). Their inspiration for legislation came from what I have described as the unintended consequences of the Harbor Maintenance Tax, starting with complaints from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma that the Canadian competition to the north and the shippers, who are obliged to pay the Harbor Maintenance Tax when entering U.S. ports, were taking full advantage of the cost-differential where the HMT does not apply.

It is a complaint that was given some appearance of validity in a Federal Maritime Commission report issued last year and, a bit more convincingly, by data comparisons published by The Journal of Commerce last month.

At the request of the senators the FMC studied the role played by the HMT (0.125% of cargo value) in decisions to use the Vancouver and Prince Rupert gateways. The report, adopted by the FMC commissioners on a party line vote, didn’t make a strong case as to cause and effect. It did suggest that if an equivalent of the tax were applied in Canada “a portion of the U.S. cargo…likely would revert to using U.S. West Coast ports.” The report concluded by suggesting any remedy is in the hands of Congress not the regulatory agency.

The JOC looked at the issue by comparing market share within the PNW and among U.S. West Coast ports, where the HMT is uniformly applied. This is their finding in a nutshell:

Port data collected by The Journal of Commerce shows clearly that while Seattle and Tacoma have lost no market share relative to U.S. West Coast ports, their market share in the Pacific Northwest, a region that includes the Canadian ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, has slipped significantly in recent years.

That may not be conclusive of HMT culpability but it is indicative of competitive weakness just south of the 49th Parallel.  The comparative strength in British Columbia could be attributed to the HMT in addition to other factors, among them the efficient intermodal delivery system established as part of Canada’s ongoing Pacific Gateway Transportation Strategy.

Enter the Maritime Goods Movement Act User Fee proposed in the bill. The HMT would be repealed and then, for all practical purposes, recreated as the “MGMA User Fee.” In virtually every respect it would be like the HMT. The principal difference is that it also would be applied to U.S. bound cargo that first enters North America through Canada or Mexico.  Shippers would pay when the cargo crosses the land border.  On this bill rest the hopes of Puget Sound’s largest ports.

But the senators didn’t stop there. They also decided to try to fix the issue that is troubling most U.S. ports—the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The bill would make several changes—including expanded uses of the HMTF such as are found in the Senate-passed WRDA (S. 601)—but let’s here focus on the greatest failing of the law as it now stands. That is the under-spending of HMTF funds.

Unlike the RAMP Act that would rely on a parliamentary mechanism to leverage full funding over the objections of appropriators, and unlike the WRDA bills of the Senate and House that set funding targets at which appropriators might aim, the MGMA bill uses a direct approach. At the bottom of page 10 is this: “[N]o fee may be collected…except to the extent that the expenditure of the fee [for allowable activities] is provided for in advance in an appropriations Act.” It is a rarely used means tying revenue collections to the spending of those revenues. The transaction would occur outside the section 302 allocations that cap appropriations committee spending. In doing so it would remove the incentive for appropriators to limit allocations and would treat the HMTF more like a dedicated trust fund.

This approach is employed in other areas of government where a user fee is collected to support a specific function of government. The only downside is that to meet the requirements of budget rules Congress also would have to identify offsetting revenue to fill the hole that would be created when, as a first step to creating the new MGMA User Fee, the HMT would be repealed, thereby eliminating 10 years of projected revenue.  Yes, it gets murky down deep in the budget process. But the result would be the very easily understood concept of “dollars in, dollars out,” as a Murray aide summarized.

Finding the offset, in the range of billions of dollars, presents a real challenge to the bill sponsors. There is a reason why other attempts at legislative solutions have produced little more than “sense of Congress” statements of principle and funding targets that are…well…just targets. The climb up this legislative Hill is very steep and the obstacles—including leadership objections and the search for offsetting revenue—have been daunting.

While we are noting the degree of incline ahead, let’s add to this particular bill the likelihood of complaints to the State Department from Mexico and Canada, who are major U.S. trading partners, and opposition from shippers and the railroads that carry their cargo into the U.S.

But that doesn’t mean it is the wrong solution to an HMTF problem that has existed since the early 1990s. It is the right one because it would be a more effective and lasting way to link the revenue to the reason for the revenue, which is to keep American harbor channels maintained and our ports competitive.  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.)

 
 

WRDA Words

In Infrastructure, Ports, Water Resources on May 7, 2013 at 12:05 am

The Senate is about to take up the first water resources bill since President George W. Bush signed WRDA 2007 into law.  By the count of many stakeholders–ports, river dependent shippers, flood weary communities–it is around four years late.  So if, for argument’s sake, the Senate passes the bill this month of May will WRDA 2013 spring into House action and to the desk of President Obama before Tidal Basin cherry trees feel the autumn cold and drop their leaves?  There’s reason to doubt it will happen that quick. But rather than peer that far into the legislative fog, let’s take a look at what is before the Senate now.

Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA) proudly produced S. 601 with the full support of the Committee on Environment and Public Works. They patterned their WRDA 2013 bill after MAP-21, which emerged from a dysfunctional Congress with bipartisan support. The water resources bill would authorize Army Corps of Engineers civil works projects to move ahead, update and reform parts of the base law dating to WRDA 1986, and attempt to streamline Federal process and delivery (construction) of projects. There is a lot to pick at and find fault with as with most public works bills. Some stakeholders will see more benefit than others. But for an economy that has been going wanting for the stimulus of public works construction the bill’s advancement to the Senate floor is being trumpeted. Five hundred thousand jobs, or so they say.

The bill has run into some buzz-saws. Environmental organizations and “tax-payer” groups have  loudly complained. It might be said that both are traditionally unfriendly to water project bills. The former argues for keeping navigation and other projects to an absolute minimum while favoring “environmental projects,” such as habitat restoration. The latter assumes there will be wasteful spending, which I would argue was certainly more true before the reforms of WRDA 1986 than it is today. The bill will result in “overspending, overcapacity, and substantial and unnecessary damage” to estuaries and harbors, or so they say.

Then there are the complaints made by leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee who predictably don’t like sections having to do with with the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. House and Senate Appropriators don’t like being told they have to fund seaport channel maintenance at the rate of collected Harbor Maintenance Tax revenue. And it’s not just because setting funding levels is their prerogative. It’s the little matter of having to come up with around $700,000,000 in additional funds. That’s a big lift in good fiscal times…and these are not good fiscal times.

Meanwhile Great Lakes senators who want the bill to assure full-use of HMT revenues for port channel maintenance are nervous, on behalf of their generally small-sized port industry, by the wording of the bill. The bill gives “high-use deep draft” ports priority status for HMTF expenditures. They want certainty that all small commercial ports are not “perennially put at the ‘back of the line’.” There are lots of other small ports in the country that would like that assurance spelled out.

Then there are the Washington State senators who have been champions of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) is in a strong position to say something about how much HMTF funds are budgeted, how the monies are being used and, more parochially, how the collection of the HMT in Pacific Northwest ports can be a reason for U.S. imports to enter North America through Canada.

Let’s not forget the Administration in all this. The White House official view cites reasons why the bill “doesn’t currently support all” of the Administration “key policies and principles” but it is carefully worded not to threaten a veto. It echoes the complaints of environmental organizations in the Statement of Administration Policy released today. The bill’s project streamlining provisions, among other things, undermine “the integrity of several foundational environmental laws.”

In her testimony before the committee where she once worked, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy told Boxer and Vitter last February that the Obama Administration supports a channel maintenance  spending level that “reflects consideration for economic and safety return of each potential investment” in maintenance as well as taking into consideration “other potential uses of the available funds,” the meaning of which is troubling for ports whose primary concern is ensure the use of “available funds” for harbor maintenance only. The testimony includes a flat statement in opposition to the idea of fully using collected HMT revenue for channel maintenance. Spending “should not be based not the level of receipts from the current tax.”

The SAP has a few odds things in it, including an incorrect description of the proposed change to the cost-sharing requirement that ports have to pay part of the incremental cost of maintenance of  channels deeper than 45 feet. The bill would shift the sharing of costs to apply to channels deepened beyond 50 feet. It is in the bill as recognition of the increasing standard size of vessels and the fact that cost-sharing was to be required only when greater depths are needed exceptionally large vessels, which in 1986 were super tankers and colliers, not container ships.

Senators Boxer and Vitter have been preparing a “manager’s amendment” to serve as a substitute for the version of S. 601 that emerged from their committee. We await its debut because it will reflect the compromises that have been made to address some of those complaints.

Word is that the HMTF full-use provisions were weakened at the appropriators’ insistence in return for a pledge to increase O&M appropriations somewhat. Word is that changes were made to accommodate some concerns of environmental organizations. We now wait to see the words.      Pbea

 

A Red Cape Wish List

In Environment, Infrastructure, Ports, Water Resources on March 17, 2013 at 11:28 pm

The first formal expression of what the Obama Administration is looking for in a water resources bill came to light the other day in a March 14 letter from Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy to Senate Environment & Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The letter provides requested “input on the development of a Water Resources Development Act.” It arrives none too soon. The chairman, with ranking Republican David Vitter (R-LA), is about to release their bipartisan recommendations for WRDA 2013.  A Committee mark-up session is scheduled days from now.

Ms. Darcy outlines a sort of policy wish list, one that has familiar themes from current and past Administrations–watershed planning, process improvement, and authorization of projects “most likely to generate a high return to the Nation.”  More notably the letter’s message crosses into territory that knowingly will have the effect of a matadors’ red cape in a dirt-floor arena.

For flood plain communities…the letter suggests that Congress “re-examine the Federal role following a flood in reconstructing public infrastructure including levees and other flood and storm damage reduction features.” It goes on to suggest reconsideration of “law and policies that influence where and how we rebuild.”

For shoreline and other flood prone communities…the Administration view goes further, calling on the legislature to “retroactively revise the stated purpose of all existing [Corps of Engineers] authorities that include flood control, storm or hurricane protection, or shore protection as a project purpose.” Reducing “the risk of flood damage in areas beyond the shore” is one thing; protecting and defending a shoreline alignment “for its own sake” is quite another.  Either way, it’s a timely subject just months after Superstorm Sandy carved its mark on the coastline.

What is driving this call for new water resources policy? Probably not much more than concerns about program cost and environmental consequence, aggravated by a whole lot of meteorological weirdness. Yes, global warming. And while both of those are concerns shared by some folks in Congress the letter’s recommendations run counter to civil works tradition and to the inclination of public officials to say yes to building and repairing solutions to flooding and the disappearance of coastline back home.

The letter doesn’t have a lot new—or reassuring—for the port/navigation community.  The statement on the navigation trust funds may break a few hearts but not new ground. The letter reiterates the Administration’s proposed fix for the broken Inland Waterways Trust Fund including a new fee structure, which the waterway industry has opposed in favor of building on the existing fuel tax regime.

It also expresses an unambiguous view in counter direction to the lobbying by ports and dredgers to increase channel maintenance funding and have full-use made of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. Instead, the Darcy letter flatly states, “spending should not be based on the level of receipts from the current tax.”

That principle could be debated, but it fails to acknowledge the fact that the Corps of Engineers she oversees is on record as saying the annualized national need for port maintenance dredging is in the neighborhood of $1.5 billon, which is a whole lot closer to the HMT annual tax receipts, projected to be $1.659 billion this year, than the roughly $850 million budgeted by the Administration for O&M this year.

It’s hard to understand walking away from the obligation to maintain what you built when the lack of money ain’t an available excuse.  This from the White House that recently announced a “Fix It First” policy for U.S. infrastructure.

Interestingly enough, arriving the same day as ASA Darcy’s letter was an email message with a transcript of a recent meeting at which President Obama talked to mayors, seemingly off-the-cuff, about the need to address port and waterway infrastructure in order to keep the U.S. competitive on the export market. In fact there are faint signs that his next budget (FY 2014) will have a fairly strong channel maintenance budget, but the Darcy letter is a clear indication that we should not look for any structural improvements in policy to guarantee full-use of the HMTF.

The Senate committee will meet soon to take up a WRDA bill. It will attempt to address the HMTF issue, the insufferable slowness of the civil works project planning process, the brutalizing of coastal areas by powerful storms, and a lot of other things in need of attention. But views expressed in the Darcy letter, on behalf of the Administration, may not be represented to any significant degree, in a bill that is a bipartisan product. And it won’t come close to resembling the bill that the Republican dominated House will produce later this year.  Pbea

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.

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

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

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