Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘Congress’

New Congress. New Maritime Policy?

In Congress, Leadership, MTS Policy, Politics on November 15, 2014 at 3:30 pm

As the first draft of this piece was being put to page some small percentage of voters were practicing their citizenship at the polls. The prospects for the Democrats, as a whole, were not very good. Ten days later, and as I now refine this text, the field still is being cleared of Election Day debris. Not just the sloppily pinned signs on the road medians but prognosticators’ tattered reputations and a few shattered incumbents were strewn on the political landscape in need of reclaiming. By far more than the paid pollsters divined in the weeks before November 4, the Republicans were handed the reins in Congress and a number of State Houses. The party consolidated its control of the House and leapt into the majority in the Senate with at least 53 seats and a net gain of eight. The final count awaits a December conclusion in Louisiana where GOP prospects in the run-off are good.

Public dissatisfaction with government in Washington is close to universal but for reasons I will leave to others to explain the Republican Party benefited substantially more than its competition and that will keep them in power, especially at state level, for several years to come. As if speaking for his fellow Republicans across the country re-elected Gov. Sandoval (R-NV) said, “This is a night to savor.”

By the numbers, incumbent US Senate Republicans will be vulnerable in 2016…but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The matter before us is the next two years of the 114th Congress.

This week the rank and file of both parties in both chambers opted to retain current leadership. Soon we will learn the names to inhabit chairmanships, ranking minority posts, and committee lists. Meanwhile, in the current lame duck session the legislature is expected produce appropriations to keep the government functioning through the fiscal year. They will decide whether the Keystone XL pipeline project should be started, and take up a few other must-pass items before bringing the 113th Congress to a close.

Long before Election Day the US-flag maritime community nervously eyed voter surveys because of what a possible Republican return to power in the Senate could mean. Now, the controlling party is known; how that majority will be reflected in maritime related legislation will be something to watch.

One can easily find Republican legislators who are considered friends of the US maritime industry, whether driven by interest in US-flag cargo preference policy, shipyard activity, the labor force, other sectors that benefit by existing policy, or just a sense of what a nation should say about its maritime capability, security, etc. But that doesn’t mean that the maritime community in Washington, DC was sanguine or unconcerned about the prospect of the GOP taking the lead in producing legislation. In fact, unions, shipyards, US flag operators and others with a stake in the status quo were in varying degrees of pre-election anxiety.

The community has been frustrated with the Obama Administration’s willingness to ease cargo preference requirements. Now, potentially as problematic, Republican legislators who, for philosophical or constituency reasons, have not been inclined to extend Ex-Im Bank authorization or fund cargo preference policy—both key issues for the US merchant marine—will have more influence in policy setting. Add to that the fact that congressional support for the Jones Act is lacking in some quarters where the marketplace is revered and shipper interests—including domestic petroleum producers—would exchange the US flag for lower vessel costs. Some ports hit hard by disruptive events and who need short term Jones Act waivers in order to manage logistics crises, may find some more receptive offices.

A few years ago Jones Act and US-flag interests started Maritime Industry Congressional Sail-In Day to lobby the Hill with a particular aim to educate legislators who are new to maritime issues. The old guard–those who recall there once was a House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, soon 20 years defunct—are nearly gone from Congress as a consequence of natural and electoral attrition. (The American maritime sector has suffered from attrition as well, with a reduced presence in international shipping and, in some respects, an aging Jones Act sector.)

More recent Republican additions to Capitol Hill are a decidedly more conservative population—some of them Libertarians and self-identified tea partiers—who are more market- and less government-oriented. They arrive in Washington with little knowledge of the American maritime tradition and even less of its policy and the rationale behind that policy. They read material from policy critics and, presumably, its advocates.

On the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee are Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) who, for example, have opposed reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank (“corporate welfare”) and could be in the mix to chair the subcommittee with jurisdiction over maritime policy. Veteran John McCain (R-AZ), the likely next chair of the Armed Services Committee, has a record of proposing the repeal of the Jones Act. Referring to a McCain quote in a Wall Street Journal blog, a union newsletter carries this heading: “Sen. John McCain Calls Jones Act’s National Security Benefits Laughable.”

Maybe change is coming, maybe not.  If anything, there is a good chance we will see more jousting on US maritime policy.   Pbea

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

Do something. But not just anything.

In Government on May 2, 2014 at 12:34 pm

I took perverse pleasure in the breaking stories on the GW Bridge screw-up last fall. They seemed to promise that glaring lights would be aimed at the problem that has been consuming the nationally prominent, first-ever American public authority. Something needed to be done. Maybe this would be the tipping point.

Six months later, there is reason for optimism.

The subject of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and the utter mess that the 93 year old agency finds itself in has been on my mind for many years; the seeds of the problem were sown quite some time ago. It’s just that by this time the sprouted weeds, not invisible if one were looking, have grown thick to the point of crippling and discrediting a once very creditable institution.

A once sought-after model for other public authorities, one that recovered admirably from the most destructive and tragic foreign attacks on American soil is now associated with political abuse, patronage, vindictiveness, and incompetence and scandal that has been a constant source of headlines since November 2013. But the blame cannot be limited to persons of the Christie Administration who took it upon themselves to play traffic doctor and “study” how to turn a town’s congestion into paralytic pneumonia.

My interest in the subject is easily explained and offered as a disclaimer. Jersey bred and a student of government, I was once an employee. A fair number of former colleagues–smart, dedicated, and weary-from-what-ails-the-agency professionals–are still on duty there. I joined the Port Authority in 1980 and remained for over 25 years. We of a certain age witnessed its rapid change from a vigorous, highly ambitious and self-confident agency, especially when it came to tackling regional economic problems, to being heavily politicized and lacking sufficient resources both to maintain adequate staffing and to meet mounting capital and maintenance requirements.

The foundation is still sound, but major structural repairs are needed and the sooner the better. And not in the way the governor of New Jersey may be thinking.

The Port Authority stopped spinning gold for New York and New Jersey several decades ago. External conditions having to do with the economy, changes in the region’s population and commuter choices, and the demands both of aging infrastructure and of ambitious governors put agency revenues on a downward slope and its capital spending on an uphill path. It faced great  challenges, but nothing that couldn’t be managed.

In its colorful history, well documented in James Doig’s Empire on the Hudson, the Port Authority has been far from perfect, but it had served as a model for other states and municipalities searching for ways to manage essential public services. It has been the principal entity to provide New Jersey and New York with a regional framework of public works serving the daily commuter as well as interstate and foreign commerce. With steel, fiber optic cable and the pooling of its revenues for mostly transportation projects, it strengthened and bridged the metropolitan area’s borderless common interest.

Politicians are inclined to see borders as bright dividing lines. Many office holders like to see and use those lines as defensive moats or walls from which to lob obstructions and insults to the other side. Over the years the Port Authority itself has been the target, especially of mayors whose towns host its bothersome facilities. (Rudy Giuliani found nothing to like there and tilted at the agency with borderline animus.) Governors, on the other hand, have known it as a resource.

As recent articles have detailed, and as agency employees have known for years, the precipitous institutional decline in the agency and in the morale of its workers can be pegged to George Pataki’s decisions soon he took office in 1995. He and other conservatives employed a mantra reflecting the Ronald Reagan theme that government is the problem and that the private sector has the solution.

Public employees were denigrated and their jobs eliminated. In their place were private sector contracts. (Consulting, a profession where I now reside, took off in a big way as Federal, State and Municipal agencies were made to hire outsiders who were presumed to be more expert and cheaper than public employees.) Why have a law department when you can hire a law firm? Why have engineers and architects on the payroll when you can hire a name corporation? Perchance, did favoritism ever play a role in privatization? You tell me.

Governor Pataki, as is documented, showed his ideological stripes–and perhaps his indifference–early by naming George Marlin, a failed Conservative Party candidate and portfolio manager as Executive Director in charge of an agency with close to 10,000 employees. Governor Christie Whitman objected, but ultimately went along with the appointment by exacting some insurance. She got to name the Deputy Executive Director. One can hardly blame her; however it only served to accelerate the regional agency’s decline by starting the bifurcation of the executive offices of the Port Authority and more intimate levels of decision-making through the taut strings that ran back to Trenton and Albany.

Marlin lasted two years; the damage to the agency’s planning capacity and staff morale, among other things, however, was lasting.

Then came the events of 2001, not to forget the bombing of 1993. The emotional hit within the organization was inestimable, starting with the loss of 84 Port Authority civilian and uniformed personnel, including its capable executive director. (How the surviving workers enabled the huge, and financially significant organization immediately to relocate headquarters staff to maintain operations, recover and quickly pivot into heightened, anti-terror security initiatives deserves its own telling.) The toll on agency finances, both in terms of revenue and the costs associated with recovery and the largely political decisions as to how to manage the World Trade Center site was immediate and continues to this day.

Fast forward to today.

While the George Washington Bridge incident is scandalous, it is not a Port Authority scandal. It is a New Jersey Governor’s Office scandal. Fundamentally, it also is a New York governor’s and Board of Commissioners’ scandal.

It is not the result of Port Authority professionals run amok. It is the consequence of one governor after another, Democrat and Republican, drawing an ever deeper red line and effectively saying, “my commissioners and I will do what we want to do on my side of the line.” Regardless of cost. Regardless of whether it is a credible Port Authority mission or within the long-established geographic scope of the Port District. A rail extension in the Meadowlands. An airport in Atlantic City. A crumbling Skyway. A substitute for a bankrupt state transportation trust fund. And that’s just in New Jersey.

This is a good time to mention something that isn’t being said enough. Nothing of any political or economic consequence is decided at a high level in the Port Authority without the implied or direct consent of the governors or through their proxies at the Port Authority or in the governors’ offices. If it had to do with something on the New Jersey side, it was allowed or caused by a Christie, a Corzine, a McGreevey. If a project was approved in New York, it was okayed by a Cuomo, a Spitzer, a Paterson.  If a press release was written, well… So it can be very misleading when a major action—and this is not intended as a reference to Bridgegate—is described as “the Port Authority” did something or decided another. This is deliciously illustrated by the most recent and messy toll hike, the details of which I will leave to The Record.

By their actions a good many governors dismissed the formative notion that an independent public authority is needed to foster and serve the bistate common interest. They strayed from the classic boardroom model and the thoughtfully limited, statutorily set, gubernatorial power to veto board actions. They enjoyed the privilege of political patronage. Patronage may have had its start with George Pataki and Christie Whitman, but what succeeding governor didn’t want to put his own people in nicely salaried jobs, even if those jobs had to be created? The genie was let out of the bottle.

David Wildstein may be an extreme illustration of what can result from doling out patronage and power. We shouldn’t assume it is limited to him and others appointed by Governor Christie but let’s keep the spotlight there for a moment. By all telling in recent years Wildstein was a noxious, destabilizing presence that employees and persons outside the agency found threatening, which is as he wanted. Wildstein and Bill Baroni—himself, notorious for his performance before a US Senate committee—were two of perhaps several persons who were placed in positions of authority and did real damage. Whatever legitimate accomplishments they might have achieved along the way, they bruised and helped bring about early ends to the careers of responsible professionals at the agency.

As it happens, some of those Christie people now find themselves at the curb—fired or resigned. Some facing litigation. Some saving face.

Governor Christie suggests maybe it’s time to split up the agency. But that would only finish the bifurcation of the agency. It also would complete the corruption of the original intent to establish a public authority that plans, builds and invests in public works with a little separation from the election-oriented office holders. If we have learned anything it is that the recent revelations point to the need for just that kind of separation.

Instead of splitting the baby, Governor Christie and the inscrutably silent Governor Andrew Cuomo should take to heart the views of Professor Jameson Doig, RPA chief Robert Yaro, and former Port Authority executives Peter GoldmarkDick LeoneMartin Robins, among other experienced and thoughtful persons. They should also listen to Chuck Schumer. Yes, that Chuck Schumer.

A panel recently was formed by the current Board of Commissioners to explore reform ideas. In a speech on April 28th, the Senator invited the Port Authority leadership to consider his proposed reforms and come up with any additional ones for consideration in Congress, where the Port Authority Compact was first approved in 1921.

In his “seven point plan” are guidelines for the selection and responsibilities of the Port Authority commissioners and executive director, who should have “full managerial authority and responsibility for “the entire Port Authority organization.”

That very basic reform can get at the root of the problem, but it wouldn’t get at the problem of whether a bad or indifferent governor is in office. That’s a problem for the electorate. But it can help return the Port Authority to having leadership that has “a fiduciary duty” to the agency and full managerial responsibility. Maybe it even will be possible to stuff that patronage genie back into the bottle.

And that is why I was happy to hear how traffic came to a standstill in Fort Lee.   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

Bottom Line Thoughts on the MTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Late Senator Frank Lautenberg

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

Frank_Lautenberg,_official_portrait

Senator Frank Lautenberg
1924 – 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

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