Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘Federal Maritime Commission’

A Perspective on Port Dominoes

In Competition, Efficiency, Intermodal, Ports on October 3, 2014 at 12:52 am

A few days ago over 100 people packed a room at high up in Baltimore’s World Trade Center for a day-long forum on “port congestion” convened by the Federal Maritime Commission. It was the second of four planned public meetings–the first was in Los Angeles and the next two will occur in New Orleans and Charleston. The window views from the meeting venues will not be the only differences in what is observed at the four sessions but there are bound to be things in common, too.

The subject of congestion means different things depending on where you are. The severity of the problem also depends on when the post-Panamax ships will arrive in greater numbers to the Gulf and on the East Coast.

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach qualify as Congestion Central if only as a matter of volume and a PierPass system that is working only too well. Some of what they are experiencing could be visited upon the Port of New York/New Jersey in less two years’ time when the Panama Canal gives way to the big ships and if certain problems are not fixed by that time. But that does not mean New York Harbor isn’t experiencing head-throbbing congestion today. Name the problem or snafu and the bistate port has experienced it like punches to the gut. So much so that it did not take much convincing to get terminals, truckers, shippers, labor, carriers and others in the room and agree to hold hands and embark on a waterfront version of a 12-step program.

Norfolk may have 50-feet of water to suit, first, colliers and now big box ships but it also is scrambling to have infrastructure and systems ready in a couple years. Truck and terminal-related problems prompted Norfolk’s own come-to-jesus/how-can-we-fix-this? process. Like other ports the problem is more on land than in the water. The concern isn’t about ships scraping bottom but about terminals getting stuck without a chassis or with too many ships and too little in the way of equipment, labor, trucks or gates. It helps that the Vice President brought a $15 million TIGER grant to Norfolk last week to help pay for improvements to gates and last-mile infrastructure over the next few years.

In the South Atlantic the stories and problems will sound a bit different, as they will in the Gulf. Ports there undoubtedly will paint favorable comparisons to their troubled brethren to the north in a sort of Alfred E. Newman way–”What, me congested?”–and not without reason. But there the trucking and chassis management problems may be only in early stages of development and more of the big ships (and perhaps big-ship-challenges) may be in their future. In fact they are counting on it.

A perspective on the problems facing terminals recently appeared in the Journal of Commerce. The opinion piece by John Crowley, Executive Director of the National Association of Waterfront Employers (NAWE, a client) was cited at the FMC forum by Bill Shea, CEO of Direct ChassisLink (DCLI) in its enumeration of congestion-inducing factors that are in play to one extent or another at U.S. container ports. Crowley pointed to 12 factors including the bunching of ship arrivals, larger ships and cargo discharges, local traffic congestion, terminal capacity and gate hours, truck driver decisions, labor shortages, and even severe weather such as has been seen in the Gulf and more recently from Superstorm Sandy. Most of those were mentioned by speakers at the Baltimore session this week.

Crowley’s piece speaks to the fact that the symptoms of what is being called port congestion are seen throughout much of the intermodal supply chain, which is to say, not just right there at the marine terminal. “The intermodal freight system…consists of market-based industry segments. There are pressures aimed at making each segment more operationally efficient and increasingly productive. It’s a system of nonstop competition, hypersensitive economics and narrow margins. We see it in the increasing size of container ships, the investments made in marine terminal technology and capacity,” etc. “The market determines demands on price and service levels from the modal carriers which, in turn is felt throughout the supply chain and by all modal carriers. Situated in the midst of those demands are marine terminals that strive for each modal operation – marine, rail and truck – to be roughly in sync.”

John Crowley “encourages all industry sectors to collaborate, as much as practicable and permissible under law, to arrive at solutions that will serve their mutual interests… Our operators rely on each mode to similarly commit. Solutions may not come as easily and swiftly as we all would like, but they will have to come about through adaptation in the marketplace by the principal actors in the intermodal freight system…” He calls for government policies that foster market solutions where possible. “We welcome positive and appropriate federal involvement that contributes to solutions but will resist unproductive, regulatory intrusions into terminal operations and where even well-intended government involvement will only frustrate the development of market solutions.” Find the full piece here.

Those views were also heard by the folks in the crowded 21st floor meeting room in Baltimore.  The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s Rick Larrabee described one of the guiding principals in the formation of the Port Performance Task Force 10 months ago. The port’s stakeholders had to be willing to “look inside” for answers as much to look to others in the port to fix the problems. Few of those problems stand alone. A line of dominoes is not the perfect metaphor but it will do. The trucker’s dilemma, for example, is one that is felt and affected by other actors in the supply chain. The companies and drivers have something to contribute but without changes in other sectors the drayage problems will become more severe; the congestion will worsen.

Dire predictions underscored the calls for solutions.

Collective efforts formed to tackle problems in the ports of San Pedro Bay, New York Harbor and Hampton Roads and as a result there is reason for optimism. But as several people told the FMC commissioners this week, we will have a rough year or two, starting this winter, until those solutions are implemented by the principal actors in the port marketplace.

Meanwhile, the FMC will hold its forums. The commissioners and staff are taking notes and those will emerge in some form of a report. It is good for the government to be alert to what is going on at the nation’s gateways and the problems of the freight logistics system. That agency may even decide to take some action to the extent its limited jurisdiction allows. But it is up to the chassis, terminal, truck, ship, rail and distribution center operators and the beneficial cargo owners ultimately to figure out how to make things work better.   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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