Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘NY/NJ’

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 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.)

 
 

HMTF: The Seven Billion Dollar Clue

In MTS Policy, Ports, Water Resources on February 11, 2012 at 6:04 pm

The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) is overdue for a remedy. How do we know? The unspent balance of Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) receipts, plus interest, is a mere $7,000,000,000.

HMT receipts are accounted for in the channel “maintenance” trust fund. However (not to be too picky) the Federal channel system is not fully maintained, and not for lack of money (see “mere” above). That and other information can be found in this 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service.

(A Moment for Trivia: The HMT is considered by some folks a user fee but as the Supreme Court figured out, unanimously and with little effort, the value-based charge on cargo bears little relationship to the service being provided i.e., maintaining channel depths and other dimensions for vessels, and “therefore does not qualify as a permissible user fee” under the export clause of the Constitution.)

The HMT is collected on import and domestic cargo handled at most US ports. On cruise tickets, too. The majority of what is collected comes from the high volume, high value imports; much less from comparatively low value domestic cargo moving between American ports. US exports cannot be charged, sez the Supreme Court.

The HMT was set to cover 100 percent of the cost of coastal channel maintenance. But if 100 percent of the channel maintenance that is needed isn’t done then 100 percent of the funds isn’t spent. It’s the kind of math that even I can understand.

Well, you might say, that’s okay because the money is safe in a trust fund. It is dedicated for maintenance dredging, right? It will be there when it’s needed, right?

Sure, but the balance has grown every year since 1994 and, more to the point, full funding is justified now. According to the Corps of Engineers the total channel system, including small recreational harbors, would cost around $1.3 billion a year. And even if the money is sitting in a trust fund collecting interest, it actually is being put to an unrelated purpose. Turns out the HMTF is a handy offset, especially when you are running a Federal deficit. Makes the deficit a little lower–$7,000,000,000 lower.

The money is collected for a specific purpose but is not being spent fully for that purpose. More than a few folks argue that is not fair. Especially the ones who have a direct stake in channel dredging such as ports and dredging contractors.

But then fairness has been an issue since the HMT and the HMTF were made law.

In the mid-80s Congress deliberated how to offset the cost of Federal channel maintenance (originally by 40 percent and then a few years later by 100 percent). Some ports argued that because heavy cargo weighs down a ship the new user fee for maintaining channel depth should applied to cargo tonnage.

Other ports took the opposite view, pointing to how heavier cargoes are often low value as well as low margin US exports. They said the charge should be on cargo value, arguing that containerized cargo could afford the charge. And since the vessel operators had already succeeded in fending off a fee on the vessel (arguably the direct user of the channel) it came down to which ports and kinds of cargo had the most, or least, votes in Congress.

The “fairness” question was decided in favor of the greater number of ports, which were export oriented and/or whose channel maintenance costs might be expected to exceed channel fee collections in those harbors.

As was patently obvious the major international gateways would produce a substantial portion of the revenue. Indeed in 2005—yes, most HMTF data is musty stuff because the Federal government unreliably produces the mandated annual report—the top cargo value ports of LA (13.7%), NYNJ (12.2%) and Long Beach (12.2%) represented nearly $380 million, which was more than one-third of HMT receipts. The top ten ports by value handled over 68 percent.

Some of them, as it happens, also require little in the way of channel maintenance. (I’ll get more into that subject in a later post.)

The HMT and the HMTF are in ways unfair and they are imperfect by design. The value basis of the tax can be explained as a seaport maintenance policy crafted for nation where no seaport has the same cargo, cargo type, volumes or geography and whose Constitution forbids Congress giving “preference” to one port over another (Article 1, Section 9).

We can’t be so generous and understanding with the way the HMTF is crafted in law and managed in the budget process.

Changing the basis of the HMT is politically unlikely (see “snowball’s chance in Honolulu”). As for the HMTF, changing the law is not easy but it is doable. (To be continued.) Pbea

Mapping the “Hidden Highway”

In Infrastructure, Marine Highway, New York Harbor on November 13, 2009 at 8:04 pm
NOS

Click for Audio

When someone talks about “keeping ships from turning into shipwrecks” we all probably could agree that’s a worthwhile use of tax dollars.

The fellow whose job it has been to map the coastal waters where ships ply the “hidden highway” is Captain Steve Barnum, who retired this year NOAA after 29 years.  He most recently headed NOAA’s Coast Survey, part of the National Ocean Service (NOS).

If you click the image above, you’ll hear him talk about the valuable service provided by the folks at NOS:

  • the country has “95,000 linear nautical miles of shoreline…3.4 square nautical miles of underwater territory” half of which was last mapped using “lead line soundings”…
  • mapping of the coastline is “a continual process”…many parts of the coastal regions remain uncharted…some data is as old as the Russian survey from when that country controlled Alaska
  • coastal surveys are also important for national security…military operations need accurate nautical charts…having a baseline makes it easier to reopen waterways after a national emergency
  • the MTS is the “hidden highway”…“hidden transportation system”
  • nautical charts are essential to the growth of the “efficient”  marine highway…making use of the “underutilized waterways” to get trucks off the road

The captain mistakenly refers to the Verrazano Bridge as an impediment for the increasingly larger ships–it’s the Bayonne Bridge, both being in the Port of New York-New Jersey–but he is right to highlight that commercial shipping is no different than other modes in needing adequate infrastructure and mapping.  In the case of  bridges, another NOS navigation system–PORTS–enables ship pilots to know the air draft under bridges in addition to better understanding available channel depth.  It’s just that when the highway is “hidden,” as the water routes are, it doesn’t get the attention–and the resources–that the dryways get.   Pbea

The MPO Role in AMH

In Marine Highway on September 26, 2009 at 10:34 pm

NYMTC

The Marine Highway effort took a big step forward,maybe three years ago, when former MARAD Administrator Sean Connaughton traveled to Little Rock for the annual meeting of the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations.  MPOs are the regional transportation planning entities responsible for developing Transportation Improvement Plans and selecting projects for Federal funding.  They consist of local government and transportation agencies including State DOTs.  The interest that an MPO shows in freight transportation depends on how well ports and other freight stakeholders engage their local MPO.

Connaughton, a former county official in Virginia, understood the role of MPOs and the Federal resources they have to support projects.  He knew also that most MPOs understood little or nothing about short sea shipping or most any form of marine transportation.  If transportation planners were to give consideration to coastal or inland shipping in addressing transportation needs they would first have to know it exists…and is relevant.

When MARAD later issued for comment the interim final rule for the America’s Marine Highway (AMH) program the notice effectively alerted transportation agencies that a new program was to begin.  Input was invited for the naming of marine highway corridors.  The response has brought to light many projects and a level of interest that previously had not been known.  (MARAD is expected to issue final rules for the program later this year and formally solicit project proposals early next year.)  Enter NYMTC.

An effort is underway by planners in the New York Metro region to gauge interest in the budding marine highway program.  NYMTC, the New York City and Long Island MPO, has scheduled a meeting for September 29th.  (See the “downloadable files” on the left menu of NYMTC site and find “America’s Marine Highways” on drop-down list.)   All are welcome to participate and one can view the meeting online.

According to Howie Mann of NYMTC the agency has reached out to neighboring MPOs–an important step because marine highway corridors inevitably extend beyond the limits of one or more MPOs.  Like the 64 Express project on the James River, undertaken by Barbara Nelson of the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission since that Little Rock meeting, these steps by NYMTC will add to public and institutional understanding and should prove useful.

Note:  If you are curious to know more about reginoal transportation planning and the MPO role, here is a worthwhile read about The History of Metropolitan Planning Organizations.   Pbea

A Decent Man and Industry Leader

In Leadership on September 14, 2009 at 1:03 pm
Bill DeCota  (source: www.bigapplegreeter.org)

Bill DeCota (source: http://www.bigapplegreeter.org)

Bill DeCota was not someone you would have met in the MTS world.  He didn’t know ships, but he appreciated that there could be a role for marine transportation at his facilities.  He didn’t know freight rail, but he knew that rail is an essential component in intermodal transportation.  He may have never set foot on a container terminal, but he understood the importance of efficient goods movement.

Bill DeCota knew airports and aviation.

On September 11th, as his colleagues at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey were re-living the tragedy of eight years before, Bill passed away at age 51.

For nearly ten years Bill DeCota headed the agency’s Aviation Department.  LaGuardia, Newark, Kennedy, Teterboro, and now Stewart.  He joined the Port Authority in 1982 as a financial analyst and well before his untimely death he had earned the respect of his staff and industry leaders.

Like other highly competent persons Bill could have left public service for greater financial reward in the private sector.  Instead he close to work to improve the country’s busiest and highly complex passenger and freight airport system in the high-pressure, floodlit New York metro region.  The region and his employer were prime beneficiaries of his talent.  Anyone who didn’t fully appreciate that fact when he was alive surely will come understand it in his absence.

He had impressive intellectual capacity, lived his work 24/7, had great integrity, demanded no less of himself as he did  of his staff.  He was a national leader  in the industry.  He probably was without peer in his command of the  statistical and financial minutiae.  He was a man of good humor and enjoyed his own, frequent quips.  And as an added gift Bill was a genuinely good guy.  He was friend and colleague to people, myself included, regardless of rank.  Patty Clark of his staff said of Bill: “He had as much concern for the busboy at his dinner, as he did for his long term friends.  The caring and concern which were the hallmark of his life, he eschewed when directed at himself.”

It is the transportation world’s loss that he is gone.   Pbea


“All Available Boats”

In New York Harbor on September 10, 2009 at 5:16 pm
Thanks to Carolina Salguero (www.carolinasalguero.com)

Thanks to Carolina Salguero (www.carolinasalguero.com)

“On Friday morning, September 11, 2009, ferries will come from the north, south and west to gather on the Hudson River at the mouth of North Cove. They will pause, bobbing, and all will turn to face the empty eastern sky over the World Financial Center. At 10:29am, they will sound their horns, a mournful chord of remembrance that notes the fall of the second World Trade Center tower.” (from the “Spiritual Sustenance at the Water’s Edge” article in the recent WaterWire newsletter of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance)

Tomorrow we will remember.

Persons in earshot of the “mournful chord” will be reminded of the masters, pilots, mates, captains, deckhands, and boaters who responded to the call that day: “All available boats.”   They may have heard the Coast Guard call or just knew in their guts what they had to do.

“In response to the emerging need for transportation, boats of all descriptions converged on Manhattan,” said Tricia Wachtendorf, Assistant Professor at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, in a school publication. “Some acted quite independently. Others sought permission from the Coast Guard, who initially instructed vessels first to stand by, then to position themselves in readiness before issuing its request for all available boats to participate in the evacuation.”

John Snyder of MarineLog.com wrote of the response by some of the more familiar New York Harbor vessel names.  “Because of their bow-loading design, NY Waterway’s ferries were pressed into service as waterborne ambulances. The vessels were used to medivac injured firefighters across the Hudson to Colgate. In all, NY Waterway ferries carried about 2,000 injured.”All Available Boats book

All Available Boats: Harbor Voices from 911 is a radio documentary by David Tarnow.   Kimberly Gochberg, a sailing coach at Kings Point, is one of several voices providing their accounts.  An illustrated book on the subject, All Available Boats, edited by Mike Magee, memorialized the maritime element that day.  A gift from my colleagues, the volume is a tangible reminder to page slowly through.

That morning the John J. Harvey, a retired NYPD fireboat went into action.  It is a small photograph but it’s not difficult to see the deck crowded to capacity with people being ferried from Lower Manhattan.  Co-owner Huntley Gill tells that story.  The vessel a metaphor for age mattering little when one can lend a hand.  An interview by Amy Eddings shines a useful light on the unanticipated urban design issue of waterfront infrastructure lacking as basic a detail as a cleat on which to tie a line.

“The mainstream press missed a major story about 9/11–the maritime role.”  Carolina Salguero posted in 2008 a fascinating account on her PortSide Mary Whalen blog.  Salguero, whose life is centered on the working waterfront, is a  professional photographer (her work is highlighted at top) who raced to Lower Manhattan by boat.   “When Debby and I approached the Battery, thousands of citizens were crammed along the seawall. As I left ground zero on the tug Nancy Moran only 2 or 3 hours later, there were none; all evacuated by boat in what was a spontaneous, civilian-initiated operation.”  Salguero’s website is worth a visit.  (Look for “maritime 9/11″ and then follow the links to for interviews, images, and video.)

The photographs of that day couldn’t capture the full measure of vessels that responded that day.  But we know who they are. Pbea

Our Turn to Pay the Freight

In Infrastructure, Surface Transportation Policy on September 9, 2009 at 5:21 pm
PBS "Blueprint America" Documentary:  "Keep on Trucking?"

PBS "Blueprint America" Documentary: "Keep on Trucking?"

Blueprint America is the PBS infrastructure series.  The series is one of the best I have seen on the subject, not that there is much competition on TV in this category.  Keep on Trucking? has the virtue of being taped in my Garden State, where men are men and women are truck drivers who train the men.

The segment reported by Miles O’Brien covers our reliance on trucking and the 50+ year old interstate highway model.  He reports on the benefits and limitations of the rail freight system.  He covers how trucking and rail compete and cooperate (“the term of art is intermodal”).  He introduces community concerns via New Jersey’s Ironbound, which is adjacent to the Newark container terminals.  And O’Brien overlays the  fact that Congress will have to replace SAFETEA-LU and face the political conundrum of taxes, with Jim Oberstar’s (D-MN) foot on the House accelerator.

Part of the value of this particular “…Trucking?” segment, as one individual awkwardly said, is the need “to look at the network of this nation as a whole” and “how these two modes can be interfaced in the most efficient way”.   “A freight relay if you will,” Miles O’Brien added, “… trains and trucks each doing the part of the job they do most economically, then passing the baton.”

Of course that topic deserves a 24-minute segment of its own…but not one limited only to two surface modes.

Predictably marine transportation was not mentioned.  Considering the key points made in the piece the marine highway should have been included in the “network of this nation.”  The water mode applies to the ideas of intermodal operation, efficiency, congestion mitigation, and the need to think outside the 1950s highway model.  As one voice noted, “it’s about retooling the freight infrastructure so American business can compete in the global marketplace.”  Not about maintaining the primacy of road and rail, one might add.

Miles O’Brien alluded to the fact that arriving at a new policy will not be easy.  “There is no love lost in the fight over infrastructure dollars.”  Bill Graves of the American Trucking Association asserted that the public shouldn’t be “deluded” that rail is “the answer”…the Association of American Railroads‘ ad campaign notwithstanding.

O’Brien expressed no particular confidence that Congress will adopt a new model.  He spoke of an American consumer trait, taking things for granted–“plentiful, high quality goods, delivered fast and cheap”–and made possible seemingly “like magic.”  Not willing to make it easy on voter or legislator, he said “it is actually about planning ahead and making big investments.”  The generation that built the interstate system did it.  “Now it may be our turn to pay the freight.”   Pbea

When State Regulation is Invasive

In Federal Government on September 1, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Non-indigenous species carried in ballast water (graphic by Patterson Clark of the WPost)

Non-indigenous species carried in ballast water (graphic by Patterson Clark of the WPost)

The Coast Guard issued on August 28th a proposed rule for the regulation of ballast water discharges (BWD).  This is the Nagging Problem (NP) that has plagued the maritime sector, particularly vessel operators.  That problem is both the habitat devastation caused by non-indigenous aquatic species unwittingly carried here from foreign ports and the  patchwork of regulation that can confound those responsible for ships in commerce.

Two Federal agencies claim jurisdiction.  The EPA does, per the Clean Water Act, and through that several states  exercise delegated authority to protect their waters.   So states like California, Michigan, Washington, and New York set their own requirements for vessels to meet.

But the vessels in question don’t just putter around Lake Erie, so to speak.  They transit international waters in international commerce and call in multiple ports.  The proposed Coast Guard rule takes a national approach with an international foundation for starters.  The proposed regs  would establish a standard for allowable concentrations of organisms in BWD.  The standard and schedule are consistent with the applicable IMO convention.  In the next decade, the standard would tighten significantly–assuming you think 1000x is significant–if currently unavailable technology would become available.  (Comments on the regulations are due November 27th.)

Still, there is that other NP.  The complication of multiple standards courtesy of the states.   At present Federal law doesn’t preempt non-Federal standards though that would be a good idea.  Who is to say that the means to meet one standard can also satisfy a second or a third standard as a ship moves from port to port?  And what if the State standard isn’t…well…carefully considered?

New York’s regulation, effective 2012, will put a ship’s pilot in violation of the law if the ship, lacking a means to meet the standard, crosses New York waters (without discharging) on its way to a terminal in New Jersey.  As frustrating  is the stricter-than-IMO standard for which ships must have onboard environmental technology that has yet to be devised, not to mention shown to be safe and effective.  NYDEC does not allow for an absence of applicable technology.  Take this enlightening discussion from The Washington Post story of August 31

Steve Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association, called different regulations in each state a “nightmare scenario.” He said current technology cannot meet New York’s standards, which are 100 times stronger than the IMO treaty, and he expects that the state will have to close ports or relax its rules.

Jim Tierney, assistant commissioner for water resources at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, disagreed. “It’s not that hard to kill things,” he said. “You can heat them up, crush them, pressurize them, put a chemical on them. We think this is a problem that can be solved in a very economical fashion.”

Well, there ya go, naval architects, biologists and others who have been working this question for a good many years.  Maybe it’s not so difficult after all.  Maybe just a big hammer, goggles, and a trash bag will get ‘er done.   Pbea

Special Delivery 400 Years Later

In History on August 30, 2009 at 9:24 pm
The FLINTERDUIN and friends sailing from the Netherlands to New York Harbor.

The FLINTERDUIN and friends sailing from the Netherlands to New York Harbor.

The Dutch are at it again.  Sailing into New York Harbor to navigate the Hudson…like Henry did.  And no, the ship in the shot isn’t a freighter of a new multi-masted design.   Look closer.  The FLINTERDUIN is delivering to 20 vessels any day now to the mouth of the Hudson River as part of the quadricentennial celebration of Hudson’s exploration of that great river.   Look to The Old Salt Blog, Rick Spilman’s blog, for more information and as well as Sea History.   The Dutch sails will be a great sight to see.   Another source of information on the celebration is the 400th commission’s website. Pbea

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