Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘change’

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

2013: The Year Before the Year of LNG?

In Efficiency, Energy/Environ, Green Transportation, Infrastructure, Ports on December 29, 2013 at 4:51 pm

A year in which U.S. shipyards announced contracts for over twenty new ocean going vessels (with options for several more) is noteworthy, especially given the recent difficult times experienced by the shipbuilding industry.  What makes this fact even more significant is that LNG as a propulsion fuel is a central feature in each of these vessels, either as the intended fuel source upon delivery or at some point in the future.

So does this mean that the U.S. maritime industry in America has reached the LNG tipping point, where a tidal wave of even more marine projects will be announced in the coming year?  My short answer would be a heavily qualified, but nonetheless definite: “maybe.”

A distinction has developed between ships that will be “LNG-ready” as opposed to those that are “LNG-capable,” the difference being those vessels that will use LNG upon delivery and those that can be converted to operate on LNG at some later date.  While certain design modifications are incorporated into these ordered vessels, such as foundations for LNG fuel tanks and dual fuel main engines, they will operate on conventional diesel fuels when they are delivered.

The reasons for taking a half step to LNG rather than making the plunge are several, among them the additional cost of the entire fuel gas system, including the fuel tanks.  However I suspect the greatest reason is uncertainty related to LNG supplies in the ports where these vessels will call.  This is particularly the case with the product tankers that have been ordered that, unlike the LNG-powered container vessels do not operate in a classic point-to-point liner service.  Their deployment is largely dictated by cargo availabilities throughout the United States and thus, until LNG is more widely available, the owners will likely hold back on a full commitment to LNG.

If one is looking for positive signs on the infrastructure front, they are there.  The Port Fourchon terminal project on the Gulf of Mexico in Southern Louisiana is being developed by Harvey Gulf Marine to serve its fleet of LNG-powered offshore service vessels.  It will be the first operational LNG bunkering facility in the United States and is expected to be operational next year.  Clean Energy has announced its intent to construct facilities dedicated to the marine industry in Jacksonville.  Tote, Inc. issued a request for proposal (RFP) to potential LNG suppliers to provide LNG for their vessel operations based in Tacoma, Washington and Jacksonville, Florida.  Each announcement of new LNG-powered ships results in a deluge of phone calls from potential LNG suppliers seeking meetings and making proposals to vessel owners.  So again, there is clear movement, growing interest and some tangible progress; but it is slow and these projects still face regulatory challenges and uncertainty that may result in delays and higher costs.

Given the delivery schedules of the Tote, Inc. ships, in late 2015 and early 2016, and the Crowley vessels in 2017,  it seems that the window for putting bunker infrastructure in place—completing land acquisition, clearing Federal and local permit requirements, and facility construction—is growing very tight.  This raises the possibility of ships being delivered and no LNG being available, which will greatly increase operating costs due to the requirements to use ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) to meet Emission Control Area (ECA) regulations.

So, to offer a slightly more elaborate answer to the tipping point question, the U.S. is closer today than a year ago but one cannot conclude that the LNG revolution has begun.  Of the limited number of Jones Act liner operators, three have already announced projects–Matson being the third–and another has announced intentions to convert existing vessels to LNG. The product tanker market has been effectively replaced over the last ten years so there are limits to the expansion there.  I think the greatest opportunities for achieving critical mass in a marine fuel transformation can be found when and if several large harbor services or tug and barge companies either convert existing tugs to LNG or CNG or acquire new tonnage or the top-tier international liner companies announce new construction programs with LNG-fuelled vessels.  Either – and certainly both – of these developments would be a critical next step to accelerate widespread LNG deployment.

Marine vessels represent the potential for a large concentrated market for LNG/CNG, and a port that has both ocean going and harbor vessels that need LNG for fuel would surely provide sufficient basis for investments in LNG marine terminal infrastructure for bunkering.

While there is still a way to go until we all agree that the breakthrough has occurred we are seeing some decisions and investments that are the necessary predicate to making LNG a common transportation fuel throughout the country.  John E. Graykowski

LNG: Ports as a Catalyst?

In Energy/Environ, Green Transportation, MTS Policy, Ports on October 10, 2013 at 8:47 am

MTS Matters welcomes a well-known and regarded figure in D.C. transportation circles. John Graykowski, a Principal of Maritime Industry Consultants, served as Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration, and for two years as Acting Administrator, during the Clinton Administration. He is an attorney with experience in both private and public sectors. The subject of LNG-fueled transportation and how it might develop in the context of maritime policy and port communities has been a focus of his attention in recent years. This is the first of his contributions to this blog’s musings on port/maritime policy—present and future.

Over the past year, LNG as a marine fuel has gone from novel concept to an accepted alternative fuel here in the United States. Some LNG-capable vessels are operating and more will be under construction as appreciation is growing for the environmental, economic and energy security benefits offered by LNG. This transformation of a marine cargo commodity to emerging marine fuel in here and elsewhere might lead one to conclude that the broad deployment of LNG throughout the U.S. is underway and faces no challenges or constraints—but this is not the case. Lagging behind LNG-fueled vessel development here are the necessary market and regulatory structures that promote its widespread development.

The most common platitude in any discussion of LNG is the “chicken and egg” problem. Ship owners are loathe to make the large capital investment in LNG technologies absent certainty of supply.  Meanwhile gas suppliers are averse to spending $150 million or more on bunkering infrastructure without firm, long term purchase contracts by ship owners. This reflects the lack of historic relationships between the gas supply industry and marine operators, who purchase bunker fuel in virtually every port on a spot basis and never needed long term contracts.

Compounding that is a lack of understanding and knowledge about each other’s industries. Marine operators are not familiar with gas production, transportation and market dynamics and gas suppliers have little direct knowledge about the marine industry practices, requirements, and the like. Emblematic of the divide between the two industries is the simple fact that marine operators purchase fuel on the basis of metric tons or barrels of oil, while the gas industry sells LNG on the basis of million BTUs. Potentially complicating this market disconnect, are increasingly stringent accounting rules that likely require a long term LNG contract to be carried as a contingent liability, thus impairing a balance sheet and constraining future capital expenditures for a marine company.

Beyond these market issues are significant regulatory challenges related to both operational procedures for bunkering vessels and, more importantly, the siting, permitting and operation of small and medium sized LNG marine terminals. It may come as a surprise to some, but there are no existing uniform federal regulatory structures that apply specifically to LNG marine fueling terminals.

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA) each have regulations that apply to LNG fueling terminals. These regulations, however, were developed with large scale export and import facilities in mind and thus are largely inapplicable to a small marine fuel terminal and the fueling of other than LNG carriers. In many cases these regulations may conflict, which creates a large area of potential regulatory confusion and will most likely result in ad hoc development of LNG regulations. Adding to this uncertainty is the probable requirement that these facilities will be subject to local permitting actions, which can provide opponents of LNG the opportunity to intervene and delay the project.

Where do ports fit in this puzzle of a marketplace?

Ports can and should be a catalyst to spur LNG development throughout the transportation industries since they are at the center of marine activities in the United States. They provide a ready-made, multi-modal market for LNG expansion beyond large oceangoing vessels, which includes ferries and harbor craft, trucking, and rail operations. Port agencies may have some degree of jurisdiction, and even control, over property where LNG operations will occur. Depending on the port, it may have a role in the siting, permitting, financing, development, or even operations of an LNG fueling terminal. As a responsible economic development agency, a port can also play a critical role in the public education and promotion of LNG and the mitigation of local opposition to such projects.

Public port agencies generally understand this is a constructive role they are in a position to play. We are seeing that in isolated initiatives, notably on the West Coast, as well on an international scale with Antwerp leading a working group that includes the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The expansion of LNG and compressed natural gas (CNG) as a replacement fuel in port related operations, already showing benefits, is also a powerful tool that ports can use to achieve significant emissions reductions and thus reduce the cost and impact of increasingly more stringent environmental regulations or measures to meet local community demands. If LNG is used to fuel vessels’ auxiliary generators while in port there may be no need to install costly shore power systems for cold ironing since equivalent emissions results could be obtained with LNG.

Collectively, ports can be in the forefront of a “Green” initiative, leading to the expansion of LNG as a transportation fuel throughout the nation. Individually, ports that facilitate LNG bunkering operations could find them to be a competitive factor in attracting and retaining liner business as those companies bring LNG-capable vessels on line to meet IMO global standards by 2020.

Much has been written of the significant impact that domestically produced natural gas and its liquefied form will have on our on our nation. Ports are where all surface modes of commercial transportation intersect and where LNG distribution will naturally occur. They are in a position to be influential in the development of national policies that promote and accommodate the broad deployment of LNG as a transportation fuel.
John E. Graykowski

 

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

Stalled and Sinking

In Marine Highway, MTS Policy on June 10, 2012 at 11:13 pm

POLITICO, the Washington, DC daily journal, published a story on May 22nd by reporter Jessica Meyers on one of my favorite topics, marine highway development. I had hoped for more but then a partisan, as I am, is always hard to please.

It was the multiple titles sitting atop the various pages and editions of the piece that got to me. Like taunts from the headline writer. “Industry appears stalled on marine highways.” “Federal marine highways project hard to launch.”  And one that elicited a quiet groan, “Marine highways projects often sink.” All for a single article.

You’d think one title would suffice.

It’s hard to argue with the conclusions of a writer whose research uncovers little evidence of successful services, hears sources say there is no market or that it is still being identified, and then calls it as she or he sees it.

Let’s face it. The shelf isn’t lined with gleaming trophies of winning marine highway projects.

Then there was this piece that appeared the next day in Lloyd’s List entitled “Built in the USA.”  “Tobias Koenig’s decision to withdraw financial support from American Feeder Lines…has opened a fresh debate on the US-build requirement of the 1920 law.”

Whether the frustration of a European shipping investor (“we intend to profit from the opportunities, and to profit well”) who had hoped to reinvent American coastal shipping and ship building has given us a fresh debate, or is just another log to grow the flames of the US-build debate, isn’t so important.

The fact is the debate continues and the heat is being felt. Others–whether Hawaiian shippers or Connecticut-based Per Heidenreich–are among the more recent voices for change.  The US-build requirement is typically the target.

The above articles point to the challenge facing marine highway service start-ups and the broader Jones Act container/trailer carrier community whose market is pretty much limited to the non-contiguous trade and whose fleet has far too many old fuel burners for the new Emissions Control Area (ECA) age we are about to enter.

Two weeks prior to those articles going to print The Maritime Executive folks convened a long planned “Revitalizing the Maritime Industry” forum. It was a Jones Act centric program and audience, although there might have been some outliers in the room.

The two-day program opened with a plainly stated concern about how the Jones Act industry today finds itself in the position of having to defend the cabotage principle instead of the onus being on challengers to explain why it would be in the nation’s interest to allow the Jones Act walls to tumble.

John Graykowski, former Deputy Administrator of MARAD and Jones Act advocate, said at the opening of the forum that “the future isn’t as clear or…as bright as any of us would like it to be.” He noted “challenges” that don’t seem to diminish and “an ever present growing threat” to the Jones Act. He pointed to fewer maritime industry advocates today in government, and to challenges to the cargo preference program and the protected non-contiguous trade.

In the background, as one easily took from the forum’s title, was the fact that important elements of the Jones Act industry have been in decline for too long a time, a condition that the marine highway effort hopes to reverse.

Along the way there were unequivocal and unchallenged statements heard in the hall as to the importance of the domestic maritime sector to the nation, the competitiveness of American crews and the competitiveness of American shipyards. Also heard was the immutability of the Jones Act.

The problem isn’t that it is broke, the message went. The problem is that aggressors are gathering at the gate and our defenders are fewer. This is a time for a collective “gut check.” The walls must be defended. Whatever happens, the law ain’t gonna change.

A few people with microphones suggested the need for some flexibility in the law. A short term reflagging of suitable, foreign built ships to enable a demonstration of marine highway service in the North Atlantic is an example that I suggested. (I argued that position on behalf of American Feeder Lines in its attempt earlier this year to win government approval of a limited waiver with the condition that US-built ships would be ordered to replace them.)

There were Jones Act defenders in the room who themselves are frustrated with the no-exceptions perspective. But it is a frustration that is not given expression in public, certainly not in a gathering such as this.

Cabotage is a principle important to the national economy and defense. However, as I suggested in a presentation at the forum, the present law is nearly 100 years old.  “I don’t think that living in the twentieth century today is necessarily how we get” to a revitalized American industry. The principle is sound but how we get to a revitalized industry, including a stronger shipbuilding sector, is the question.  Once revitalized the industry can be more successful in defending both the principle and the gate.

MarEx Editor-in-Chief Tony Munoz, convener of the event, concluded the program by saying the forum and the attendees are the “tip of the spear” to “move this agenda forward.”

But, I wonder, will preserving every jot and tittle of the status quo be the only element of that agenda?  Pbea

An earlier version of this appeared in the “Deep Water Port notes” newsletter of the Connecticut Maritime Coalition.

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

I’m Dreaming of a New Congress

In Federal Government, Intermodal, Marine Highway, MTS Policy, Surface Transportation Policy, Water Resources on January 4, 2011 at 12:25 am

The new two-year Congress commences on January 5th and it promises to be different in ways beyond the changed list of sworn-in men and women.

In fact I think that we could see the start of some structural changes in Washington and maybe…just maybe…something good could come out of it.  Am I betting on it?  No. Washington is too fond of the fetal position.

However this time issues of a more fundamental nature are getting attention.  Those issues have been around for a long time, long before ARRA, TARP and the big dollar spending and tax cuts necessitated by the severe drop in the economy.  And it appears that some spines were stiffened in the last election and not just on the Republican side.  There appears to be more universal acknowledgment than ever before as to:

  • Growing entitlement programs that dominate non-defense spending and with predicted revenue shortfalls.
  • A large defense budget we can’t afford to leave off the table when cutting spending.
  • A tax system in need of a significant overhaul and simplification.
  • An infrastructure policy of disinvestment that makes our transportation less efficient and dooms us to second place status in the world economy.
  • Our economic and national security in the hands of oil producing countries most of which, at best, do not share our democratic values.

There is a potential for consensus that could slowly build around putting in order the nation’s fiscal house and addressing other policy deficits.  It is possible.  (Then again I thought it was reasonable to expect the Giants to take on the New Jersey label when they made the move to the Meadowlands.)

Still, hope persists because those are serious problems that undermine our long term competitiveness.

Closer to home…there are comparatively smaller issues that are fundamental in their own way and deserve attention in the new Congress.  Wading into the policy weeds, here are some things I would like to see Congress address over the next two years:

  • A vigorous marine highway program built on the converging imperatives to reduce petroleum consumption and emissions in the transportation sector.
    • Leverage private investment dollars in new vessel construction and incentives for users of blue and brown water service.
    • Encourage State initiatives to adopt marine highways as elements in the interstate transportation system.
    • Waive the Harbor Maintenance Tax for intermodal cargo moving in the domestic trade.
  • Improving understanding of marine transportation and the contribution it makes and, even more, can make.
    • Examine what is needed to update a US maritime policy to enable the private sector to break the cycle of decline and the public sector to incorporate US flag shipping in surface transportation improvements.
    • Improve funding and human resources for the Maritime Administration, which remains a lesser modal agency in the USDOT family.
    • Renew the effort to coordinate and elevate maritime related issues among the many agencies including more buy-in by USDOT, the one department that has the most to gain.
  • Fixing Federal water resources policy, especially as regards navigation.
    • Ensure port channel maintenance funding on a par with Harbor Maintenance Tax collections.
    • Fix the too-long flawed, too-long Federal (WRDA) process of planning, funding and constructing navigation projects.
    • Distinguish between frivolous earmarking and the prosecution of fully vetted navigation projects that provide economic security in most regions of the country.

The difference between the list above and the list below is that the latter is more politically doable…if Congress and the Administration would pay it attention.   Pbea   (this entry is a revised version 1.4.11)

WRDA: Commonsense Earmarking

In Federal Government, Infrastructure, Leadership, Politics, Water Resources on December 20, 2010 at 8:01 pm

A restaurant is moving into our nearby Del Ray Alexandria neighborhood (and not nearly soon enough, I might add).  It is unabashedly called Pork Barrel BBQ.

The name–chosen by a  couple of former Senate staffers now opening their first restaurant–has plenty of context in the Washington area where “pork barrel” is a mud that gets slung by persons of all partisan and ideological stripes  deservedly or not.  The observation goes…”One man’s pork barrel is another man’s needed project” (or favorite eatery, as the case may be).

But let’s reject the term for such time as it takes to rationally debate the issue of earmarking.

The previous post on this blog discusses how a broad brush is being used in the “earmark” debate in Congress where schizophrenia has been in great evidence as party members opine on the subject of how earmarking should be treated by House and Senate rules starting next year.

You can tell that rhetoric and ideology are getting their way when House GOP leadership is telling the rank and file to cut their griping and just deal with it.  It being a prohibition on all earmarking (writ broad).

The thinking person should have problems with that.  Putting aside an obvious constitutional argument, let’s consider how not all project types are alike.  And to keep this short, let’s stipulate that while some earmarks are  little more than grand ideas others have been subjected to considerable analysis.  Put water resource projects in the latter category.

Federal water projects go back to 1824 when Congress told the US Army Corps of Engineers to make rivers safe for navigation.  Today the Corps’ civil works mission includes navigation (the Federal system of coastal and inland channels), protection against floods and shore erosion, and other project types.  Today projects are put through  an extensive and expensive series of wringers: environmental, engineering and economic analysis, EISs, White House sign-offs, reports to Congress, contracts between local project sponsors and the Federal government (covering sharing of costs, provision of lands, etc.), congressional authorization of projects that satisfy the various tests (see WRDA), and  subsequent funding decisions by Congress.  Oh, and there’s the public input opportunities along the way as well as more recent provisions for “peer” review of Corps feasibility studies.

As Amy Larson of the National Waterways Conference put it in her letter to Republican leaders, “water resources projects are scrutinized, arguably, to a greater extent than any other capital investment program in the government…”

In his letter of November 29, 2010, Kurt Nagle of the American Association of Port Authorities told the leaders “it is vital to find a solution that provides a process that enables investments in needed improvements in transportation infrastructure to move forward in a non-earmark environment, especially new-start construction projects.”

Yes, you are bound to find “pork” by someone’s definition even among scrutinized water resources projects but that can be managed through oversight by appropriators.  But if the leadership is not taking the time to understand differences among project types, the high hurdles that navigation projects must overcome to qualify for authorization and funding, or the simple fact that most of the nation’s navigation system consists of FEDERAL channels that Congress is obliged to maintain and improve in the national interest, then they appear to be engaging in little more than indiscriminate mud slinging.   Pbea

 

Congress Should Ban/Allow Earmarking

In Federal Government, Politics, Water Resources on December 17, 2010 at 1:28 am

Step right up to the Washington Sideshow! See the lobbyist do strange things.

Go ahead.  Don’t be afraid.  Ask me about earmarking.  Then watch my head spin, my eyes bulge, and listen as I speak in exasperations, convolutions and contradictions.

Outside the Beltway earmarking might be a specialty of tattoo artists.  Inside the Beltway, and in the public sector among countless State and local officials–and even in the private sector–earmarking is about addressing solving problems and getting business done.  It is what you ask of your Senator or Member for your town or company or non-profit.

Earmarking, rarely adequately-explained in the media, is usually defined as bacon-brought-home.  The water supply project.  The library addition.  The in-the-bag contract with the Army.  The jet fighter the Air Force doesn’t want but your constituents want to build.  The genome research grant.  The road extension.

The claim is that earmarking costs money that otherwise would not be spent and, in any event, should not be spent in this time of record deficits.  Others respond that it represents “only” less than 1 percent of the cost of a major funding bill.

Defenders of earmarking reach for the Constitutional argument: Congress and Congress alone was given responsibility for making funding decisions.

Besides, goes the insulting tag line, why should Congress defer to “faceless,” “unelected” “bureaucrats” to decide what projects to fund or grants to award?

As a practice congressional earmarking grew significantly over the past 10 or so years.  Today thousands of earmarks populate annual appropriations.  Over 6,000  projects were in the last enacted surface transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU.  (The name that includes the then committee chairman’s wife’s name is itself an earmark.)

Recent congresses have adopted ever tighter rules to improve transparency and to formalize making earmark requests.  However in this post-election period we see earmark critics empowered to the point of sending once-proud practitioners to the public confessional from which they emerge chastened and converted to the cause.

The Washington Sideshow can be entertaining.  Righteous conservatives decry earmarking and then do an about-face as if it the real implications of an earmark ban on their ability to help their districts suddenly dawn on them.  (Doh!  I need that road project!)

Okay, enough about Congress.  What about your head spinning?

Okay. Here goes. Earmarking has gotten out of hand.  It’s the self righteous indignation about earmarking that has gotten out of hand. It used to be about bringing home the pork; today the farmyard is emptied of its livestock.  But there is an unreasonable demand for purity by tea party adherents and Republican leadership. Yes, but there definitely are bad earmarks and that’s got to stop.  But there is nothing bad about helping your district get funds for needed sewer lines. Something needs to be done.  Yes, something needs to be done.

Okay, okay.  So your head can spin.  What does this have to do with the MTS?

You will have to read the next post.  Here’s a clue…WRDA.    Pbea

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Good Luck, Mr. Chairman.

In Infrastructure, Leadership, MTS Policy, Politics, Surface Transportation Policy on November 17, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Capitol Hill institution is a phrase that some incoming freshmen Members may not appreciate or find at all useful.  After all, some of them are arriving with the intent to de-institutionalize the place.

Democrat Jim Oberstar was de-institutionalized on Election Day.  He lost his re-election bid as did some other senior congressmen, including two other committee chairs.  Gene Taylor (D-MS) of the Seapower Subcommittee was one.

The chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee is both an institution and a creature of one, where he spent 36 years representing his Minnesota district.  He started on Capitol Hill in the early 1960s as a staffer for an earlier iteration of that committee.  His remarks the other day to reporters (as reported by Sarah Abruzzese of E&E) reflect a perspective born in another time that looks out of place in the litmus-test politics of today.

“I think you will see coming in a lack of institutional understanding and also it appears a lack of willingness to follow seasoned leaders,” Oberstar said.

That’s speculation on his part but not without cause.  A real question giving those of us here pause is how well the 112th Congress will function and, therefore, govern.  Many of us end the 111th Congress with doubtful expectations for the next one.  (Paul Page of the Journal of Commerce wonders about the prospects for governing also.)

Not to suggest it is the center of the policy universe but in the transportation sector there is much at stake.  Here are three instances.  Long pending aviation program and policy legislation has been immobilized and needs to reach the President’s desk.  Likewise, the significant surface transportation “reauthorization” legislation—to include reforms that hopefully will make up for the excesses and diversions of SAFETEA-LU—is overdue and guaranteed to take at least another year to address, if we are so lucky.  Whether this next “TEA” bill will contain the multi-modal sensibility, including marine elements, that many of us look for, is one of the consequential unknowns.  And speaking about bills that are rarely on time, how will the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works program–the basis for navigation infrastructure and commerce since the nation’s founding days–be made to function well in the next decades if Congress does not take up water resource (WRDA) legislsation?

There are bigger fish to fry in this town, of course – the government’s off-balance fiscal policy, the economy, and our international presence. But let’s consider the prospects on a smaller and more easily understood scale of those, nonetheless significant, challenges that face the transportation and public works panels of the House and Senate.  There is much to do in part because not much has been done over the years to address the nation’s infrastructure deficit or to focus on neglected sectors like the U.S. maritime.   As for the incoming class, Jim Oberstar’s conjecture is reasonable.

Among the members-elect, “there is little appetite for or appreciation of the broader policy questions that the nation faces with transportation,” he said — emphasizing that this was his opinion from reading about election outcomes across the country.

***

[Oberstar] expressed admiration for Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who served as the committee’s ranking member and is now almost certain to take over as chairman. “Mr. Mica and I developed over these four years a very close working relationship,” Oberstar said. “He and I were both quick to say we have disagreements on policy issues, but we found a way to mitigate those differences.”Oberstar listed multiple bills that the two parties were able to come to an agreement on and shepherd out of the committee, including a Water Resources and Development Act that successfully overcame a presidential veto, an Amtrak bill that the president signed, an aviation authorization bill (twice), and a Coast Guard authorization bill.

***

“I would have brought to the new Congress that history of cooperation and seeing and trusting, that’s even more important, trusting my partner in this process,” Oberstar said. “Going forward, you’ll have to rebuild all those personal relationships and committee structural relationships. And that will take time and will take something out of the process.”

How true.  While still holding out hope for what is to come, we will miss Jim Oberstar, the institution and that diminishing breed.   Good luck, Chairman Mica.   Pbea

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