Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

Two Trust Funds in Search of a Solution

In Infrastructure, MTS Policy, Ports, Water Resources on October 25, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Yesterday Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander (R) stood near Chickamauga Lock in Chattanooga and said, “We have two trust funds to deal with waterway infrastructure like the Chickamauga Lock, and neither of them works.”  He tells the truth.

The senator and former governor convened a presser to preview legislation–the American Waterways Act–that he and others will introduce when Congress resumes its session after the November election. The still in draft bill would tackle some financially challenging issues because the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (river system) and the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (for the most part coastal ports) are both at the center of current navigation infrastructure problems and the ultimate solutions to those problems.

The IWTF fund, with collections from a fuel tax on commercial vessels operating on the inland system, raises insufficient funds for what is a large, backlogged demand for lock and dam construction and rehab work. The users of the system have proposed changes in cost-sharing as well as increases in the fuel tax.

As has been discussed elsewhere in MTS Matters the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is a problem of a different kind. The ad valorem tax on cargo raises sufficient funds to cover the nation’s channel maintenance requirements but the Administration and Congress do not spend O&M funds at a rate commensurate with collections. The crafters of the planned bill are said to be working on how to assure annual appropriations at full-use levels as well as to free the accumulating surplus–now above $7 billion–for port projects.

The greatest challenge in drafting the legislation is the high hurdle presented by congressional budget rules. Based on what we have heard, the drafters intend to enable  the spending of tens of billions of dollars for construction and maintenance work over a 5 to 10 year period.  Even if the existing and future collections from the fuel and cargo taxes can handle that, as is the plan, Congress would have to effectively waive budget rules to get past procedural barriers. That doesn’t happen often. Moreover, it would require consensus among the key actors and probably a majority in the House and a super-majority in the Senate.

And while there has been significant growth in the ranks of advocates on these issues, solutions to the IWTF and HMTF problems have yet to achieve that kind of consensus.

The AWA–if it isn’t premature to assign an abbreviation to a measure not yet introduced–would have other provisions.  Senator Alexander identified these:

  • address regulatory and permit process streamlining projects by adopting the MAP-21 approach to speeding projects;
  • shift the 50/50 cost-sharing requirement for coastal channel maintenance from 45 feet to apply to those channels deeper than 50 feet;
  • open the HMTF to now ineligible port projects, to include landside projects (especially to satisfy ports like Los Angeles that don’t have much in the way of O&M dredging needs);
  • authorize a 5-year construction program to advance projects to deepen ports to accommodate post-panamax ships needing around 50-foot depths (to include Charleston and other planned deepenings that meet the present 3.0 benefit/cost test);
  • make the increasingly expensive Olmsted Lock project on the Ohio River a fully Federal responsibility, which would free IWTF resources to start other waiting construction projects; and
  • require the Federal government to follow the Inland Waterways Capital Development Plan developed by the industry and Corps of Engineers for an increase in the fuel tax and a 20-year schedule for projects.

The guts of the Inland Waterways Capital Development Plan were put into legislative language found in HR 4342, the WAVE 4 Act,  introduced earlier this year byRep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY). Worth noting, the Administration put forward a different proposal to address the ITWF problem and had been at loggerheads with the industry with no agreement in sight.

The likely sponsors of AWA are from both parties and will include principal sponsors Lamar Alexander and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), plus others who may include Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).  Feinstein and Alexander are the lead senators on the appropriations subcommittee that funds the civil works program.

Why are senators talking about introducing a controversial reform bill soon before the 112th Congress comes to a close? There are several answers, one of which is that the House and Senate are preparing to tackle major fiscal and revenue decisions (see “fiscal cliff“). Resolving the navigation trust fund problems could be made easier as part of the larger debate.  Also, as I mentioned in The WRDA Mantra post, an effort may be made to move water resources legislation (WRDA) during lame duck.  The AWA is squarely in WRDA territory and Alexander needs to be ready to jump on-board even if the odds of WRDA advancing are slim to none.  Push come to shove, the senators who introduce the AWA bill this year will be staking claim to the issue in the next congress.

Let’s face it.  The American Waterways Act, as it has been developing in the months leading up to Senator Alexander’s announcement, is an extremely ambitious package.  It will entail getting Congress to approve significant hikes in commercial navigation project spending, increase the fuel tax, venture into the touchy subject of expanding uses of the HMTF, and streamline permitting on some water resource projects that have been a favorite target of environmental conservation organizations…none of which are reasons to put a halt to such ambitious foolishness.

Said Lamar Alexander yesterday, “The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund collects a lot of money, but doesn’t spend it well. The Inland Waterways Trust Fund doesn’t collect much money, but spends it well. This bill would fix the way our ports and waterways are funded so that we can meet the challenges they face…”

Here’s a challenge for a do-something Congress.  Pbea

Vision Ingredients (Part 1)

In Federal Government, Leadership, Surface Transportation Policy on November 28, 2009 at 8:19 pm

Thinking of George H. W. Bush can conger up a few unfortunate (for him), lasting images. For me it’s the former president’s food judgments (pork rinds good/broccoli bad), his unfamiliarity with the price of  milk, and Dana Carvey’s exaggerated but dead-on impersonation.  Then there was, “oh, the vision thing.”  It sounded like he thought it a useless factor in governing–perhaps more so than he may have intended–but it stuck.

As a practical matter civil servants and political appointees often aren’t given the time to engage in “visioning”. Sometimes when it is done it can amount to little more than a facilitated exercise.  But what may seem like a luxury, or a waste, arguably is essential for a new administration and even newly sworn congressional leadership.

At USDOT some part of a vision is in place, though I don’t know how much is the result of planning or predisposition.

The two elements of an Obama transportation vision that I can identify are high speed passenger rail and livable communities.  The first is courtesy of President Obama himself.  In an out-of-the-blue moment earlier this year the White House said the economic stimulus package being written in Congress must include billions to start a high speed rail program.  (It was one of a few Obama “musts” in a measure that was mostly dismissed by Republicans as a “Pelosi” bill.)   The rail piece was the president’s vision, and an inspired one to be sure.

The second quickly became a regularly voiced theme by Secretary Ray LaHood and his policy staff.  It suits an administration that is oriented toward energy conservation, the urban environment and, not to be forgotten, the voting pedestrian/commuter.  Does it qualify as vision?  I think so.  It’s more than a policy view because a livable community objective could transform urban and town landscapes and it entails a broad range of policy solutions.

Meanwhile a more complete administration surface transportation policy is still in the cooker.  Congressional committees are wondering what and when policy recommendations for a successor to SAFETEA-LU will emerge from USDOT headquarters.  Perhaps no sooner than mid 2010.

Vision and policy are not synonymous.  One can have a new vision, and implementing policy, for passenger rail while maintaining a decades-old freight policy.  Somehow that doesn’t sound like this administration.

It’s one thing for the recent Bush administration and Secretary Mary Peters to articulate a scant administration view  about transportation that amounted to little more than less Federal government, more State responsibility, and greater private sector financing and management.  It made for a transportation policy only a Cato could appreciate.

But we might reasonably expect more from Messrs Obama and LaHood given the administration’s expansive environmental and energy view.  Transportation’s role in addressing those issues is significant and goes beyond putting passengers on trains and encouraging transit use and bicycling.

So here’s the question: What is the total vision that will steer administration action and guidance to congress over the next three, maybe seven, years?  Will it be more than passenger rail and livable communities?    Pbea

The Connective Tissue of a Nation

In Federal Government, Infrastructure on November 17, 2009 at 4:13 pm

You can’t thrive as a nation while New Orleans is drowning…and cities in upstate New York and the Rust Belt are rotting from lack of employment opportunities, and so on.   Imagine, instead, an America with rebuilt, healthy, dynamic metropolitan areas, and gleaming new port facilities, and networks of high-speed rail, an America with electric vehicles and a smart grid and energy generated by the power of the sun and wind and water and the ocean’s waves. (“What the Future May Hold”, November 17, 2009)

Bob Herbert of the New York Times has penned several columns about our crumbling infrastructure. How many times can writers like Herbert belabor the point?  Not enough.

Eugene Robinson of the WPost:  It’s unrealistic to think this disaster is going to spur the nation to seriously address all its infrastructure problems. We’ll talk about the issue for a while, then go out and buy another TV. But we can—and should—at least do a more rigorous inventory and identify the structures that pose the most peril. Yes, it’s boring stuff to even think about. But just look at the alternative. (“Back to Basics”, August 2, 2007)

David Brooks of the NYT:    In times like these, the best a sensible leader can do is to take the short-term panic and channel it into a program that is good on its own merits even if it does nothing to stimulate the economy over the next year. That’s why I’m hoping the next president takes the general resolve to spend gobs of money, and channels it into a National Mobility Project, a long-term investment in the country’s infrastructure. (“A National Mobility Project”, October 31, 2008)

Thomas Friedman of the NYT:  Look in the mirror: G.M. is us.  That’s why we don’t just need a bailout. We need a reboot. We need a build out. We need a buildup. We need a national makeover. That is why the next few months are among the most important in U.S. history. (“Time to Reboot America”, December 23, 2008)

Brooks and Friedman wrote on the eve of the new Administration and the writing of a stimulus bill by Congress.  Some small part of the “recovery” package  signed by the president was in the spirit of rebooting, as Friedman suggested, but it was too little.  The Obama Administration talked in vision terms but didn’t press for vision-scale action by Congress.

At this point–nearly a year into Democratic control of Washington and millions of  job losses later–an infrastructure policy is being talked about only in oblique terms, as “Stimulus II” or, by those who are fearful of  the spender label, the non-stimulus stimulus.  And as helpful as that may be for purposes of creating some jobs  it doesn’t substitute for an infrastructure policy.

So shall we primly, safely wait for Federal accounts to come into balance, saying we can’t afford it, while developing and developed nations on other continents propel themselves into economic vitality with steel, wind turbines, and fiber optics?  Consider what can be accomplished by putting money–yes, borrowed money–into real, decades-lasting, efficiency-producing, capacity-building, economy-stimulating, pride-inducing public works and critical infrastructure.

For all their faults the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s strengthened our nation in lasting public works, a strong sense of conservation, and nation-building spirit.  As if to prod us into action some of the glorious thirties era infrastructure that has not been well maintained is visibly deteriorating.

Bob Herbert: Consider transportation. As Brookings tells us, “Other nations around the globe have continued to act on the calculus that state-of-the art transportation infrastructure — the connective tissue of a nation — is critical to moving goods, ideas and workers quickly and efficiently. In the United States, however, we seem to have forgotten.”

Pbea


A Million Reasons

In Leadership, Surface Transportation Policy on September 21, 2009 at 12:26 pm

TollBanana

“Funding is the key,” said former DOT Secretary Norman Mineta.  He should know.

Mineta spoke to an estimable eighty invited to UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs to discuss how significant reform in surface transportation policy might be achieved.  He told them that funding is the prerequisite for the kind of major investment measure that all agreed is needed.

Noting the particular challenge, Mineta recalled how he  brought to the Bush (43) White House a proposal to add two cents to the Federal fuel tax.  The intent was to elevate road and transit program funding to level closer to actual system need.  The Commander-in-Chief said no.

Pop Quiz:

  1. On what bill did George W. Bush first exercise his power of the veto?  (Softball.)
  2. Aside from a $8 Bn game-changing plan to jump-start high-speed passenger rail, which president ruled out any immediate action on a major transportation infrastructure program because he (that’s a hint) was not inclined toward a tax hike or other revenue measure? (But why just pick on presidents?)
  3. Is there a snowball’s chance in Haiti that Congress will pass the next full-fledged TEA bill anytime soon?

(Answers: SAFETEA-LU, Obama, Not likely.)

It’s not a stretch to suggest that it may take years for official Washington to approve a costly multi-year surface transportation bill.  Certainly one that includes substantial reform  (such as sustainable transportation and livable communities), new attention to freight gateways and corridors, and overall higher levels of capital investment in our declining public works.  Hundreds of billions are needed over and above what is required to maintain what we already have.  And a declining highway trust fund makes even maintaining the status quo a pressing challenge.

Josh Vorhees of Energy & Environment News wrote a good story carried by the NYT.  The conferees at UVA know the timidity of the Electeds when it comes to approving new revenue increments to support this or that.  When it comes to the partisan battlefield there is no distinguishing a user fee from a tax.

Some time ago, when a toll increase was being contemplated by staff of  a public authority, the subject was referred to as “The Banana. ”  The T-word was not uttered in internal discussions–lest others outside the agency get wind of it before the numbers were fully crunched and the rationale fully developed.  “The Banana” was a calculated, albeit humorous, way to manage in the hyper-sensitive political world.

A some point–much sooner than later–the million reasons why a tax payer or system user should not be charged must be faced by our Electeds.  At some point the fact will sink in that America’s competitiveness is declining as other nations  are  using this lousy global recession as reason to engage in major infrastructure improvements.

Mort Downey recounted last week at a freight-related event how over the years Washington has managed to extend or raise the vehicle fuel tax even when the economy was in distress.  Somehow we survived.   Pbea

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