Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘barge’

Port Performance Under the Microscope

In Congress, Labor, Legislation, Ports on September 1, 2015 at 5:07 pm

I last wrote of how Washington policy makers and agencies grew more interested in the port sector and how ports, small and large, benefited by that attention. So let’s consider some recent and largely unwelcome attention.

The messy, prolonged West Coast contract talks and negotiating tactics that resulted in a dysfunctioning supply chain at the waterfront elicited a strong and prolonged backlash from the importers, exporters and others whose own operations depend on reasonably well-functioning ports. (“After all, shippers crave certainty, and they crave reliability,” the recently released Pacific Maritime Association annual report acknowledges.) Not that the shippers were taken by surprise. With the 2002, ten-day shutdown of the ports fresh in mind, they expected the worse and were diverting some cargo to gateways of other coasts (or countries) months into the talks.

You are familiar with the recent history. The talks between the PMA and International Longshore and Warehouse Union started in May 2014. A year later the ILWU rank and file gave the new contract its final approval. In between is where it got interesting and “port congestion” came to be reported in main stream media. Management pointed to the intentional shorting of the workforce by union leadership. The union countered saying the terminals brought the problem on themselves by not being prepared for big ships with more cargo. In any event, port congestion was amplified at the largest Pacific gateways.

Export apples were not making it overseas markets in time. Retailers decried the slow flow of their freight from ship to gate and finally to shelves. But first the ship had to get to berth. By February, when the tentative agreement was reached, there were over 30 ships waiting at anchor off Los Angeles and Long Beach. POLA executive director Gene Seroka told the Wall Street Journal that he expected “it will be about three months before we return to a sense of normalcy.”

Over the nine months that the negotiations were underway the cargo interests were active and vocal. A coalition of companies and trade associations formed and periodically met with and issued joint letters to policy makers. They asked for intervention or at least for official Washington to pressure negotiators to make it quick. Their major complaint over time was that President Obama was just, in the White House’s word, “monitoring,” not acting. Members of Congress eventually expressed their concern about the effect of the prolonged talks.

Meanwhile the Port of Portland had its own particular low productivity problem where a continuing multi-year dispute, if anything, wasn’t helped by the prolonged contract talks. By February, a frustrated Hanjin Shipping announced it would end service there, leaving Portland and its ICTSI terminal operator in search of a willing container line.

Leading up to and long after the conclusion of the contract talks the shipper community lobbied for “a tool that will help provide certainty to future negotiations.” Letters seeking legislation to provide that tool typically would carry over one hundred organizations’ names. Some bills eventually were introduced. But from the perspective of most ports, the bill represents more problems than potential solutions.

Congressional advocates for the cargo interests have taken two approaches in their legislation. The first to emerge was the “Port Performance Act” (S.1298) by Senator John Thune (R-SD). He chairs the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee that eventually approved the measure. Noting that the port sector had yet to be plumbed for the sort of “condition and performance” data that Congress and transportation planners say are needed to better evaluate the national freight system, Thune’s bill prescribes the annual collection of monthly terminal operations data. It’s the sort of data that terminal operators keep for themselves to improve terminal functions and that port authorities are reluctant to have out there to be used by the competition. In the version that ultimately was approved as a provision in the Senate’s surface transportation bill is the requirement for data on vessel, train and truck time in port, lifts per hour, and cargo dwell time. Those and other metrics are required to be used for the annual reports to USDOT.

What is not in the Senate-passed bill is a provision, original to S.1298, that would require monthly reports of port performance data to USDOT and Congress during collective bargaining periods when contracts have expired. Organized labor and ports don’t like the bill and the unions lobbied especially hard to have that particular provision excised.

The other type of bill that was introduced—first in the Senate and more recently in the House—would amend labor law. Whereas Thune’s Port Performance Act is premised in part on the idea that data would be useful in documenting when port cargo operations and cargo interests suffer during contract negotiations, the other legislation is to provide a means to engage the government and the courts in bringing closure to prolonged negotiations i.e., a market for that data.

Freshman Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) introduced his “Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit of Shipments (PORTS) Act” (S.1519) to amend the Taft-Hartley Act to make slowdowns an unfair labor practice and empower governors to initiate boards of inquiry and seek court injunctions. (The House version was introduced in July by Dave Reichert (R-WA) and others.)

Senator James Risch (R-ID) takes a somewhat similar approach to the Gardner bill, with added inspiration from the Portland terminal operator who wants parties responsible for slowdowns to be penalized. Risch’s “Preventing Labor Union Slowdowns (PLUS) Act” (S.1360) makes slowdowns an unfair labor practice, defines slowdowns, declares US policy as one to “eliminate the causes and mitigate the effects” of port disruptions, and prescribes penalties for violators including decertification of labor organizations.

So what are the prospects for these bills in this Republican-led Congress? Amendments to labor law are sought by Republicans and opposed by Democrats. While the former has solid majorities in both chambers, the latter is in a position to slow and stop bills in the Senate where 60 votes routinely are needed to assure passage of just about any bill of substance. We may see hearings on the PORTS and PLUS Act legislation, and we definitely will see GAO reports—already requested—on the economic consequences of the West Coast talks. But between the Senate rules and the Democrat in the White House (see Secretary Perez comments), those bills will have trouble becoming law, perhaps even getting floor time in Congress.

Thune’s Port Performance Act is quite another matter. The diluted version of the bill passed the Senate, tucked away in the 1024-page, appropriately labeled DRIVE Act (H.R.22). It is the Senate’s version of a must-pass highway and transit bill. Key House legislators have yet to weigh in on the issue of port performance metrics and data collection, much less produce their own 6-year transportation infrastructure bill. Some action on the larger bill is inevitable, perhaps to the point of becoming law.

When the House side takes up the question, cargo interests will again point to the West Coast experience and seek restoration of frequent data reporting during contract talks. Port interests will explain why the Thune language is generally impractical and unwelcome. Labor will ask the House transportation leaders to flatly oppose the entire Port Performance section that is in the Senate passed bill.

More to come on this matter of the performance and condition of ports, and how and whether to measure it.   Pbea

What TIGER Tells Us

In Marine Highway, Surface Transportation Policy on February 23, 2010 at 12:39 pm

No, not that Tiger.

The eagerly awaited TIGER grants were announced last week.  An experiment in government.  Against their better judgment members of the House and Senate gave $1.5 billion to the Administration and left it to the discretion of USDOT program managers, modal administrators, the Secretary (and perhaps the White House, just in case) to decide what projects were worthy.  (Egads! The bureaucrats!)

The multimodal discretionary grants program—later assigned a name and acronym at USDOT—was created a year ago in the cauldron in which Congress cooked up the economic recovery package.  The context was job creation in a failing economy.  But the genius of TIGER’s tenacious sponsors—most visibly Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA)—was that it also was a good time to try something different.  Politics would always be lurking in the background (if not in the foreground) when doling out tax revenue for public works but this was not a time for the earmarking norm.

Also lurking was the thought: if this works it could set the example for a change in transportation policy.

Lisa Caruso of the National Journal asks in her transportation “experts” blog if TIGER should be replicated in the surface transportation authorization bill.  Can it serve as a model for the revised policy and programs that many of us look for in the bill?

So far the respondents (scroll thru the page) generally agree there is benefit in the approach.  What’s not to like? Livable community folks liked the selection of street car and pedestrian path projects.  Goods movement was given a strong boost with around $300 million going to rail projects.  And it was good to see that at least one of the promising marine highway initiatives was granted $30 million.  (The first of many one hopes.)  That award illustrates how TIGER–and Secretary Ray LaHood–was open to more than the usual road, transit and bike path projects.

By and large, very good projects were selected.  But the question posed by Caruso is whether TIGER represents a policy approach worth continuing.

Some of the respondents think TIGER is a good starting point but that it is important to change the underlying policy.   In particular Steve Heminger notes it is not enough to create a grants program that is mode neutral.  An improved Federal policy and program should have a clearer, focused national perspective e.g., goods movement and metropolitan mobility.  It is a view I share.

Bob Poole raises an important policy question worth debating by suggesting an underlying weakness of a multimodal approach if a highway tax is the sole source of support.

One person’s response I would be interested to see is that of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA).  In January 2009 the chair of EPW, which is to produce highway and other portions of the next authorization bill, flatly opposed the multimodal discretionary grants provision in the draft Senate stimulus bill, even as Heminger and other Californians welcomed the idea of a mode-neutral program and projects judged on their merits.  Boxer and others in the transportation leadership of Capitol Hill will decide whether the TIGER approach is just a brief detour from projects as usual.   Pbea

The Grass is Greener — Pt. 2

In Efficiency, Intermodal, Marine Highway on January 19, 2010 at 10:05 pm

Envy is a perfectly serviceable starting point for developing national transportation policy. Our new high-speed rail program is an apt example. It’s a Euro-inspired, greenish gleam in a candidate’s eye made billion-dollar real by our new president and the stimulus package. While we wait for our first bullet-ride to Disney World or Albany let’s consider what the national transportation policies of other countries are accomplishing. We continue this series with another look to the north and Canada’s North American gateway strategy. This time…investment in short sea.

This item caught the eye.

Government of Canada takes action to facilitate shortsea shipping

OTTAWA — The Honourable Stockwell Day, Minister of International Trade and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway, today announced completion of the Southern Railway of British Columbia (SRY) rail barge ramp, a shortsea shipping project at the marine rail terminal on Annacis Island in Delta. This project was made possible by $4.6 million in federal funding under the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative.  (release: January 15, 2010)

Turns out the Canadian gateway strategy isn’t just attracting international containers to ease them on down to the U.S. by rail.  The plans for the Pacific gateway include using the marine highway as an “optimizing” element for goods movement.   “Better use of our waterways through shortsea shipping can help alleviate congestion, facilitate trade, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and increase overall transportation efficiency.”

After a call for proposals five projects were selected for the plan totaling over CN$20 million, to be matched by the private sector grantees:

  • Fraser River Shuttle;
  • Deltaport Shortsea Berth;
  • Vanterm Shortsea Berth;
  • Mountain View Apex Container Terminal; and
  • Southern Railway of B.C. Rail Barge Ramp.

These projects in the Vancouver, B.C. region “call for the development of specialized facilities such as docks, ramps, and fixed-crane infrastructure that would facilitate shortsea shipping of a variety of cargos (including containers, railcars, and break-bulk cargos) that ultimately either originate from or are destined for Asia.”  (release: September 5, 2008)

This marine highway element of the Asia-Pacific Gateway strategy is designed to increase efficiency and reduce environmental impacts of goods movement.  It is intermodal. It ties marine to rail and road.  “The Annacis Island marine rail terminal will provide industries in coastal B.C. and Vancouver Island with rail connections to four major railways: Canadian Pacific, Canadian National, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe.”   Obviously, an equal opportunity connector.

It may be a fair to say that the above grants planned to boost short sea shipping in Canada’s largest port region are roughly comparable to the marine highway grants program recently authorized by the U.S. Congress. The Canadian grants support pieces of a strategic plan; the U.S. grants will support projects that meet certain market and public benefit criteria and are in designated “corridors.”   The Canadian grants support capital requirements, which the U.S. version is likely to do.   On the other hand, the above grants go to projects of companies, such as terminal operators.  While most marine highway projects in the U.S. are assumed to be private sector initiatives the grants likely would go to sponsoring public agencies.


One googling leads to another.  I’ll close with a video from The Sustainable Region TV program of Vancouver, a place known for its clear skies (and a looming Olympics).    Pbea

Transformational Transportation, Part 2

In Green Transportation on July 31, 2009 at 11:21 pm

Persons famliar with Secretary LaHood’s meeting with public and port officials in Oakland tell me that folks might be surprised to know which California official was most enthusiastic  about the prospects for Bay Area marine highway service.  Among those at the meeting were two California cabinet members (Food & Agriculture and Business, Transportation & Housing) and the director of Caltrans.

The Eco Transport project has been in development for a few years.  The business plan is to reduce the need for  truck moves into Oakland by deploying barges to move containers between Oakland and the Ports of Stockton, initially, and Sacramento.  The company notes that such an operation also will make unnecessary a great many empty container moves and the associated costs of fuel and exhaust.   Export containers could be loaded heavier in Stockton because they would not have to meet road weight restrictions.  And carbon counters are sure to like the shrinking of the significant carbon footprint of trucks carrying imports into the central region, and California exports to Northern California’s principal international gateway.  Indeed the company has done its due diligence to substantiate the environmental benefits of their new marine highway service.  And the result has been the endorsement of regional and State air quality agencies.

So which official at the meeting revealed great eagerness and anticipation about the green barge service?  It was Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura.  He and the growers/shippers of the Central Valley are enthusiastic about the prospects for barges carrying goods to Oakland and then on to a ship for the export market.  And when a shipper is looking forward to taking  its goods to the water that’s a very encouraging sign.


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