Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘freight’

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

 

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.)

 
 

Now They’ve Gone and Done It!

In Congress, Infrastructure, Surface Transportation Policy on July 3, 2012 at 9:54 am

Washington, which is to say Congress, got it done.  Really.

The “it” is the surface transportation authorization legislation that sets the programs for highway, transit and related infrastructure–hereafter referred to as MAP-21 (“Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century” for those of you who feel a need to know.)  The bill, H.R. 4348, won bipartisan approval of both chambers by large margins.

The roughly $52 billion per year measure’s importance can be gauged by the fact that the soon-to-be law determines how much the States and transportation agencies will receive for system maintenance and improvements. It also sets national policy for everything from truck size and weight to reducing transportation emissions to traffic safety.

MAP-21 is the successor to the 2005 SAFETEA-LU (no, I won’t spell that one out for you). Arguably, MAP-21 is a significant successor. It includes some reforms recommended by national commissions that were formed–and informed–by the earmark-excessive SAFETEA-LU.  It also contains provisions on two areas of interest that are, in their own way, groundbreaking: freight and channel maintenance.

Back in 2005 once the dust had cleared following the House and Senate negotiations that produced SAFETEA-LU the freight interest groups were surprised to see the main freight infrastructure funding provision laying there in the dust.  It had been cut out.  It took the Freight Stakeholders Coalition–ports, railroads, shippers, truckers, you name it–no time to regroup and work to get–seven years later–freight policy provisions in the next bill.

Today there is reason for celebration. While a $2 billion National Freight Program didn’t survive the conference some freight provisions were adopted in the final version that is going to the White House for signature.

  • A National Freight Policy is established with goals to improve the “condition and performance of the national freight network.”
  • A National Freight Network consisting of critical freight routes and other routes on the interstate system and in rural areas, is to be designated by the Transportation Secretary.
  • USDOT is to prepare a National Freight Strategic Plan in consultation with States and public and private stakeholders. The plan is to identify freight gateways and corridors (and their bottlenecks), future freight volumes, and needed improvements.
  • USDOT is to report on the condition of the freight network and improve data and planning tools to support outcome-oriented infrastructure investments.
  • States are encouraged to develop freight plans and organize freight advisory committees to give stakeholders input into freight project planning.
  • In lieu of a separate allocation of funds for freight projects the bill offers an incentive for freight project funding by allowing the Secretary to reduce the non-Federal share of a project’s cost if it meets criteria for improving freight mobility.
  • The bill also increases to $1 billion (over a five-fold increase) the popular TIFIA credit assistance program and authorizes $500 million for Projects of National and Regional Significance (PNRS).  Both of those have been particularly helpful in financing large freight related projects.

The other noteworthy provision in MAP-21 isn’t nearly as significant in dollar and program terms but deserves a mention.  In this so-called “highway bill” is a provision bringing attention to the underfunding of port channels and the continuing Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund problem.  The best that the House and Senate sponsors of the RAMP Act legislation could achieve was to get “sense of Congress” language that reminds the White House and Congress that the full measure of HMTF resources should be spent each year to keep U.S. port channels at their most efficient.

It was much less than the RAMP Act supporters (I among them) wanted but there is a legitimately positive way to spin it.  For the first time Congress–in the surface transportation bill, no less–acknowledges the need to make full use of the user-paid revenues to maintain the underwater highways for shipping. It is a stepping stone to greater funding as I suggested a few months back after the House Appropriations Committee approved a record $1 billion to be spent from the HMTF.

Let’s be clear. MAP-21 is not all that it should have been. For starters, it is only a 2-year bill compared to its 4- and 5-year antecedents. Why? Because the House, Senate and Administration conspired to avoid the crucial issue of new revenue as if it were a tick infested bed of poison ivy. Yes, that is a kicked can that you see down the road (to double down on metaphors). The corollary to that is the inability of the legislation to afford the demonstrable need for greater funding for infrastructure  improvements and maintenance.   The funding in the bill is half of what it should be.

The surface transportation bill also is not as multimodal as it should be. It is time for rail and domestic marine freight transportation to be folded into the nominally intermodal surface transportation policy. Commuter rail is. Passenger ferries are. The adage “freight doesn’t vote” continues to apply.

With the exception of rail freight project eligibility for TIFIA and PNRS financing the program remains a predominantly highway one. It’s time we move to a different policy paradigm that addresses transportation infrastructure needs in modally neutral terms.

But let’s not spend too much time lamenting what should be but isn’t. The legislators returned to their home offices over the Independence Day recess able to say they got something worthwhile done on a bipartisan basis.  Imagine that.   Pbea

So Spake the Freight Stakeholders

In Congress, Federal Government, Intermodal, Surface Transportation Policy on June 4, 2012 at 11:49 am

The Freight Stakeholders Coalition–a group of 18 or more organizations–spoke  freight to power.  But in today’s Washington, where the policy makers often wear policy blinders, will the Deciders (to use Dubya-speak) listen to the goods movement call for change?

Back in 2005, when SAFETEA-LU came out of the House-Senate conference cooker, the Stakeholders were dumbfounded to realize that the negotiators cut from the bill a key freight provision on which there had seemed to be agreement.   It was a 2 percent set-aside funding requirement for freight related projects.

It didn’t take long for the Stakeholders to regroup, this time in sync with the 50+ State DOT leaders (AASHTO), and produce a 10-point paper making a collective case for goods movement policy.    Still feeling the SAFETEA-LU sting years later the Stakeholders sent a letter to House and Senate conferees–the people tasked with coming up with a surface transportation bill to send to the President.  The letter contains the 10-point paper and concludes:

Now more than ever, the needs of our goods movement network must be addressed as system use continues to grow in lockstep with America’s recovering economy. The inclusion of a national freight plan with supporting policies, strategy and funding will help ensure America’s international competitiveness, create jobs and bolster the U.S. economic recovery.

But will the conferees–who largely take their cue from a small number of party and committee leaders–get it done?  As we learned from the sad SAFETEA-LU experience just because there are fairly substantial freight provisions in the MAP-21 Senate bill (S. 1813) doesn’t mean the final product will take goods movement seriously.   Besides, the House-passed version (H.R. 4348) was a Plan B vehicle to get to conference with the Senate.  It doesn’t have freight provisions.  For that matter, the version that was reported from the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, but which failed to get to a House vote, H.R. 7, contains little in the way of substantive freight provisions.

Will the conferees get it done?  Larry Ehl rightly has cause to ask a more basic question: Are Transportation Bill Negotiations on the Rocks?  Ben Goldman also see bad news clues.  Pessimists, which may include most who work around Washington these days, would observe that this particular Congress seems to want to get not much done.  Some legislators–tea partiers especially–would proudly label that an achievement.

I still think it can get a bill done, however, despite a significant push by the private sector for strong freight provisions, one wonders what the House conferees will agree to.  Moving on…

Days after sending their letter to the conferees the Stakeholders gave cheers for a senator’s letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

In her letter of May 31, Maria Cantwell (D-WA) told Secretary LaHood to “tear down bureaucratic barriers and inefficiencies” in the modally stove-piped department by creating a freight-focused operation in the Office of the Secretary.  The senator pointed to ways that her home state has realized benefits of “freight coordination, prioritization, and collaboration” between the public and private sectors.

Over the years Congress has been importuned to create a freight office, establish an assistant secretary post for goods movement, etc.  But silly arguments about expanding government and creating new bureaucracy usually keeps those ideas from being given a serious hearing.  The implementing agency of national transportation policy remains structured as if the modes rarely if ever meet.

But as we know, in the real world they are meeting with ever increasing frequency as the market seeks ever more efficient ways to getting the job done.  On dock rail.  Intermodal yards.  Trains to airports.  Boxes shuttled from trucks to ships to barges to trucks to rail to….

The senator’s letter speaks to the need for a  “high-level and coordinated multimodal freight initiative.” *  She reminded the Secretary he doesn’t have to wait for Congress to create a formal structure.

… I strongly encourage you to establish a high-level and coordinated multimodal freight initiative at the U.S. Department of Transportation using your existing administrative authority.  If established, this initiative office should report directly to you, include a special assistant designated with specific responsibility for freight movement, and endeavor to improve federal freight policy, planning, and investment across all modes.

Or as one might say in Obama-speak: Yes, he can.

Secretary LaHood is leaving the Obama Administration later this year.  Let this be his gift to his successor.  He can set up a freight office down the hall from his own.  He can start the process of directing the DOT stovepipes, which in truth do talk to each other about some freight objectives and the occasional project, to be even more intentional about it.  He can ask his modal administrators and freight staff for their input on how best to get it done.  But most of all he can make a serious effort–as serious as his pretty effective distracted driving campaign–to bring his department and government policy to where the mostly private sector freight innovators have been for a good long while.   Pbea

* Kudos to the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors for its diligent efforts in advancing the freight message on Capitol Hill.

That Transportation Can Got Kicked Again

In Congress, Infrastructure, Surface Transportation Policy on March 30, 2012 at 11:51 am

Congress this week again extended SAFETEA-LU by approving H.R. 4281, what might reasonably be labeled the kicking-the-can-down-the-road road bill.  This 9th extension buys 90 days of time for the House and Senate to come to terms on a new, surface transportation authorization measure.   And while putting off a decision on a multi-year bill is not favored by stakeholders the alternative—a complete expiration of program authority—would be far more problematic.  (The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee release refers to “a devastating shutdown of highway and bridge projects” if the Senate didn’t follow suit.)

The Senate-passed MAP-21, S. 1813, which garnered 74 votes in that chamber, was touted by Senate and House Democrats as the simple answer to the House Republican Leadership’s unprecedented dilemma of having difficulty amassing sufficient votes to approve a surface transportation bill that was reported from committee nearly 2 months ago. But that short-cut to a final bill was unlikely for reasons including House rules.  House Members approved the extension, through June, by a vote of 266 to 158.  The vote was held off until a couple days before SAFETEA-LU was to expire and legislators are to start a two-week recess to give the Senate side few options other than to take the House extension or risk program shutdowns.

Attempts were made by Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to substitute the short-term H.R. 4281 with her 2-year MAP-21 but her motions failed to win the necessary (to make for speedy consideration) unanimous consent.  Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) objected each time.  If Senator Boxer had succeeded the bill then would have to go back to the House where one might expect it to be blocked, MAP-21’s bipartisan credentials notwithstanding.

That doesn’t mean that the Senate bill doesn’t stand a chance on the House side.  The bill’s co-author is conservative James Inhofe (R-OK) and MAP-21 won the votes of a substantial number of Senate Rs.  And while Inhofe has stayed clear of the “pass MAP-21″ chanting another Republican–DOT Secretary Ray LaHood–hasn’t held back.  And there are others.

MAP-21’s urban and rural transit provisions are more to the liking of that sector and while its freight sections are not all that they could have been–major provisions produced in the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee having been left out on the way to passage–those titles have more to recommend than one finds in the House version. Among other things the Projects of National and Regional Significance category is given new life in the Senate bill.  (On the down side, neither bill goes farther than to offer an anemic “sense of” Congress provision on the growing problem of under spending Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund resources on navigation channels.)

So, expect the pressure to build for House action on a version closely resembling the Senate bill  if the Majority continues to struggle in assembling votes for its 5-year version, H.R. 7, the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act.

What now?  Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and John Mica (R-FL), chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, continue their recruitment effort to get sufficient votes to pass H.R. 7.  They face the opposition of many Democrats, which puts much of the onus on the majority side to produce the votes. The lack of earmarks in the bill certainly doesn’t help that but then part of the problem all along has been that the Republican Conference’s many anti-earmark freshmen just have not warmed to the idea of a 5-year, $260 billion dollar transportation bill.

And if you think a 90-day extension actually gives Congress 90 days to find common ground you don’t know Washington math.  There are fewer more than 30 legislative days on the calendar between today and the start of July…when the next extension may be needed.   Pbea

(An earlier version of the above appears on The Ferguson Group Blog at http://thefergusongroup.typepad.com/grants/2012/03/ninety-days-and-counting.html)

If you only have hot dog money in your pocket maybe you just buy a hot dog…but which hot dog?

In Efficiency, Infrastructure, Surface Transportation Policy on June 2, 2011 at 9:36 am

My previous post about the surface transportation reauthorization bill—TEA for short—ended with a bit of wait-and-see optimism.  That was then.  Here is a bit of face-facts pessimism to balance it out.  It’s the kind of yin yang see-sawing that this town sets the mind to doing.  Spend more than a few minutes thinking that things will turn out fine and then…

It would be so much easier if the main actors in the TEA deliberations agreed to settle for current revenue projections.

There is real money and then there is wish money.  Real money is in the bank, or will be. Wish money is what we want Congress to produce though new transportation revenue measures.  And what is the chance of that happening when?

We can speculate, as many do, that after the 2012 election office holders will muster what it takes to vote for new revenue. But after watching these first months of the New Washington—where donkeys and elephants can’t even agree which of them has the trunk—the best we may have reason to expect of the House, Senate and White House is that they will come to some basic agreement on the overall Federal budget.  Set your sights low.  A big transportation bill won’t figure into that deal.  And a more conservative Senate after the elections may cause our sights to be five clicks lower.  Meanwhile the TEA can gets kicked farther down the road.

Barring the use of creative accounting—the sort that will not serve us well as the government feels its way to solid fiscal footing—the options for a 6-year TEA bill could be limited to $556 billion (Obama), $339 billion (Boxer) and, maybe, $230 billion (Mica). The last of those assumes only projected Highway Trust Fund receipts. Those are the choices. In which case…

Let’s here assume Congress, at best, will extend the soon to expire excise taxes to avoid a total collapse of current programs.  The choice then that policy makers have is between A) extending current law authorization i.e., SAFETEA-LU and sit tight, and B) approving a new TEA bill that fits the revenue stream.

While hardly our preferred road to travel, the “B” route may not be a bad option.  Yes,  it would shrink transportation funding on which States and locals—already strapped for cash—now rely for road maintenance, transit projects, bike paths, and other uses enabled by over one hundred programs.  But—here’s the yang part–it also could have its benefits along with the pain.

  • Get past SAFETEA-LU by enacting reform policies e.g., performance metrics, that have emerged from the various advisory panels.
  • Give States maximum flexibility to put available Federal funds to their best use.
  • Focus Federal policy on what is in the national interest (building stage coach museums vs. easing interstate chokepoints).
  • Provide added impetus to enact creative leveraging of other sources of infrastructure funding e.g., expansion of TIFIA, new infrastructure bank.
  • Force government at all levels to adjust how investment decisions are made—where the priorities are and whether projects can be delivered more efficiently. (Recent testimony from the Congressional Budget Office—“The Highway Trust Fund and Paying for Highways”—provides a helpful review of options and makes the point that “selecting projects carefully can increase the highway system’s contribution to the performance of the economy.”)
  • Cause States to re-examine their own transportation funding mechanisms and, in States like New Jersey, face up to the under capitalization of transportation trust funds.
  • Give the nation the taste of intentional under-investing in America and the significant economic consequences of that.

Chairman John Mica (R-FL), facing the facts for months now, has vowed to get a 6-year bill done this year using existing revenue. That’s the best he can do given the current House majority and leadership.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) is the top Republican on the Environment & Public Works Committee that will produce the bulk of the TEA bill.  As bullish as he has been on the need to produce a full 6-year bill (with earmarks!) he disagreed this week with his committee counterpart, Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who said she will put a full bill before her committee. Inhofe acknowledged that Congress may have to make do with current levels of revenue in a 2-year bill.

So here is a tough-love case for moving ahead today: improve the policy but face the fact that Washington, sadly, is not yet ready to go the full measure in addressing the terrible under-investment in our infrastructure.   Pbea

The Rush/No-Rush to Replace SAFETEA-LU

In Infrastructure, Politics, Surface Transportation Policy, Uncategorized on May 26, 2011 at 4:39 pm

You’d think that Congress and the Administration are proud of SAFETEA-LU.

That’s the “bridge-to-nowhere”, 6000+ earmark, strangely named measure that was signed into law in 2005 and immediately trashed on the front page of Parade (yes, Parade!), on editorial pages of all stripes, and by interested interest groups.

Freight stakeholders were grossly disappointed by the final product of a seemingly endless process born of a White House that didn’t seem to care, a Congress that seemed to care only about taking home projects, and policy makers who, for the most part, would have stumbled in answering the question: what is the underlying national policy and purpose?

In retrospect, the SAFETEA-LU experience was just what the doctor ordered.  Like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise that premiered with a ridiculously entertaining first film and epitomized wretched excess by its third iteration, the “TEA” surface transportation bill franchise was not well served in 2005.  Time for a change.

The policy commissions (#1 and #2) authorized in SAFETEA-LU to look to the future and make recommendations for the next-go-round were among a comparatively small number of “LU’s” insightful provisions.  The resulting reports and recommendations emanating from think tanks and other organizations are urgent calls for reform.  A common assessment was that SAFETEA-LU does not address the pressing needs of the nation. The case is been made in the reports:

  • The National Interest (my caps) was lost in the flood of 6000+ earmarks.
  • The Highway Trust Fund is structurally flawed and is losing revenue.
  • Capital needs of our transportation system are greater than current funding levels.
  • American competitiveness is at risk if we ignore the problems facing a growing goods movement sector.
  • Too many discrete surface transportation programs limit the ability to focus funds on greater needs.
  • Metrics–performance measures–would help judge where Federal investments can have greater effect.

And there were more.

So you’d think the policy makers would be in a hurry to fix the problem,get “LU” off the books and put in its place a new stimulus for the lagging economy.

You’d think.

It doesn’t help that the public and their electeds are tax-talk shy.  That was a main reason why the White House delayed putting together a proposal for a new bill.  It is the reason why few in Congress are willing to talk even about adjusting the existing tax in order to plug the gaping hole that is draining the trust fund tank.  Formal appeals and press releases by stakeholders calling for action pile high.

Reading the signs as to where the key actors may be headed in recommending a 6-year bill…the Administration has budgeted a $556 billion without stepping onto the thin ice of tax talk.  The Senate is looking at $339 billion, which will require around $75 billion in undefined additional revenue.  The House appears rigidly set in whatever revenue the Highway Trust Fund fairy will collect in fuel and the other excise taxes currently in effect.

Like just about everything else in this town, it’s the talk about spending–or silence about revenue–that is governing the legislative agenda.

It’s not that key actors don’t want to get a bill written and made law.  They really do.

They understand the potential for claiming and real job creation.  They want to shake off the dust of inaction.  They actually want to solve problems.

Chairman Barbara Boxer and her Republican counterpart met the press this week. Chairman John Mica frequently and convincingly voices his intent to produce a bill this year.  And the President outlined, in greater detail than the others thus far, his policy direction when issuing his FY 2012 budget.  There are other signs of what passes for progress in Washington.  Freight related bills have been introduced and await movement by the lead committees.  However a good many seasoned observers do not expect a bill will be signed into law until after the 2012 election because of tax issue avoidance.

But let’s stay optimistic.  Next we need to hear from the tax committee chairs.  Because, in more ways than we might want to admit, it’s all about the money.   Pbea

What Are We Doing?

In Efficiency, Infrastructure, Intermodal, Surface Transportation Policy on October 7, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Canada announced a waiver of its 25 percent import tariff on general cargo vessel, tankers, and ferries longer than 129 meters.  The decision will save shipowners $25 million per year over the next decade.

“This duty relief will accelerate the renewal of the Canadian marine fleet across the country and will help replace aging vessels with cleaner, safer and more efficient ships,” said the Chuck Strahl, Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.  “All the while, it will build on unprecedented investments our Government has made in Canada’s infrastructure and gateways by contributing to the upgrading of marine transportation links across the country.”  (Marine Log, October 4, emphasis added)

The announced tariff initiative should bring into the Great Lakes newer and more efficient competition for the existing commercial fleet flying the US flag.  Perhaps it will stimulate new shipping activity on the Lakes, which would be good.  Ships will move goods more efficiently to the benefit of energy savings and air quality.

If you have the feeling that our friends to the north are thinking and acting strategically, with an eye to the large American market, it is because they are…as they should.

Will Washington watch and learn?  Or will the dusty ol’ status quo continue to be good enough  for US?  In using this most recent example of Canadian initiative I refer to nothing so specific as Jones Act requirements but, broadly, to the insufficient attention and action to address the glaring need here, especially on the marine transportation system.

Much is known as to the general direction of the Obama Administration’s thinking on transportation policy—passenger rail, public transit, livable communities, sustainability, etc.—if not about detailed proposals.   But when it comes to goods movement little has been said.

Officials at USDOT acknowledge having been slow to focus on the subject of freight.  Early on there was the view that the heavy volume of international cargo ramping onto US highways and rails was the sort of thing not meriting Federal attention–“making imported flip-flops even cheaper” was the oft quoted line–as if that were the sum total of goods movement pressures in the country.   The thinking since last year boiled down to the notion that the freight sector will take care of itself, as Transportation Under Secretary for Policy Roy Kienitz acknowledged last week.  The private sector nature of goods movement could lead one to that view, I suppose.

However, Roy Kienitz went on to indicate that more thought is going into the subject now.  He said that a presentation by Canada’s ministry of transportation on their gateway strategy made a strong impression on him.  The strategy is a public/private initiative.  He noted it is intended to attract more North American import/export trade through their British Columbia and Atlantic ports and thus make Canadian operations significant players deep into the American Midwest market.

In the Canadian initiative he can appreciate how government can play an important role working with the freight sector.  Hopefully USDOT also understands that the American transportation sector can lose business if we just sit and watch while others press ahead.

In fairness, a good percentage of USDOT-issued TIGER grants went to rail, marine highway and other freight related projects earlier this year.  We take that as a positive sign.  But the longer it takes official Washington to actually do something structural about America’s aging infrastructure, the capacity to handle growing freight volumes, and a listless maritime sector the more ground we lose.

The examples of strategic planning and investing abound around the world including just north of here.

What are we doing down here?    Pbea

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