Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘SAFETEA-LU’

Ports Then, Ports Now

In Congress, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Ports, Surface Transportation Policy on May 4, 2015 at 10:08 pm

Not all that long ago U.S. ports—principally through the public port authorities—were minor and largely absent players in the Federal transportation policy discussion. Port authorities and marine terminals engaged attorneys who tended to the infrequent channel project and to regulatory matters before Federal commissions. Seaports were (and still are) creatures of states and municipal level government. There was no Federal funding to speak of. Ports were assisted in the form of navigation channels constructed and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through the Civil Works program—a program in the control of legislators, who reserved the authority to approve projects, and engineers, who were told to implement the projects. Even in the case of port channels the appropriated sums did not go to port authorities but were cycled within the Federal government and to its contractors.

Back then U.S. maritime related policy was tightly focused on promoting U.S. flag shipping, American shipyards and American crews. Ports were in a policy no-man’s-land between the water and land modes. In its early years the U.S. Department of Transportation had maritime jurisdiction through the U.S. Coast Guard. USDOT was all about building the interstate highway system and tending to railroads, aviation and mass transit. It was not until 1981 when the Maritime Administration moved into USDOT after 31 years in the Commerce Department. Even then the agency continued to be concerned with vessels, not ports and harbors.

By 1980 only a handful of ports had need for Washington representation focused on Capitol Hill and transportation programs and policy, beyond that provided by the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA).

The 1980s were a time of change. Transportation regulation was giving way to forms of deregulation. By the close of 1978 we saw deregulation take hold; railroad, motor carrier and aviation policies were being reshaped. At times ports were very interested stakeholders as Congress ushered in deregulation. If anything, they wanted to be assured of sufficient rail service, preferably the competitive kind. The Shipping Act of 1984 took the maritime sector a few steps toward deregulation, with some implications for harbors, but greater reforms had to wait until the Ocean Shipping Act of 1998.

It was not until the mid-eighties that ports entered the center ring of Washington policy deliberation. Most of the Carter and Reagan years constituted a legislative dry spell for water resource bills. Ready plans for navigation improvements and proposed feasibility studies awaited action. “User fee” had a certain cachet in the Reagan years. The message to Congress was clear: in return for the president’s willingness to sign a projects bill some reforms would be required and Federal project costs would be offset. Local project sponsors would have to share the cost of improving channel projects. Port users would have to cover a substantial portion of Federal channel maintenance costs. Defining who was to pay, and how much, divided ports into two opposing coalitions. It was not a lasting split but it highlighted differences among the harbors, their physical characteristics, their cargo volume, and their cargo kind.

The resulting Water Resources Development Act of 1986 was landmark legislation that reset navigation and other water resources policy. It also triggered an awareness on the part of ports to be present and active in Washington, both through individual representation and associations.

In the 1990s the Department of Transportation developed an interest in the port sector and the condition of water and land access routes to marine terminals. The department’s jurisdiction did not include the system of channels–and the Corps of Engineers jealously guarded that historic jurisdiction–but it rightly saw the importance of efficient access to the port facilities regardless of the mode taken. Moreover, port and other freight interest groups collaborated in calling on policy makers to give their attention to freight mobility.

In 1991 Congress enacted surface transportation legislation–its prior iterations known simply as “the highway bill”–and in doing so finally adopted intermodalism as a desirable direction for policy. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 did not create an avenue for Federal aid for port facilities but it did hint at a line that would be crossed years later, when Federal dollars helped make improvements inside the terminal gates. The ISTEA sausage-making experience inspired trade groups to form the Freight Stakeholders Coalition. In the twenty-five 25 years that followed the coalition celebrated some successes and today is still at work looking to strengthen Federal freight infrastructure policy.

One of the first intermodal efforts by USDOT, in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board, was to examine the state of access to ports by the land modes. TRB’s 1993 report, Landside Access to U.S. Ports was followed the next year when the ISTEA-created National Commission on Intermodal Transportation published its report, Toward a National Intermodal Transportation System. The case was being made with evidence mounting. In 2000, the results of another congressional mandated study was reported by USDOT on National Highway System Intermodal Connectors. Freight infrastructure as it led to and departed from marine terminal areas was in poor condition. Actually doing something about it had to wait a while longer for SAFETEA-LU (2005) and MAP-21 (2012).

One other marker along the policy path deserves mentioning. In 1997 Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater initiated a look into what he referred to as the “marine transportation system,” which by definition is port-centered and extends beyond the terminal gate to include the access modes and intermodal operations. USDOT convened stakeholder sessions in port cities and then a national conference on the MTS. The resulting 1999 report–An Assessment of the U.S. Marine Transportation Systemincluded recommendations, among them the facilitation of landside access to ports and the formation of an interagency Committee on the Marine Transportation System and a stakeholder Marine Transportation System National Advisory Council. Those and certain other recommendations were implemented and have contributed to improvements in both freight operations and the port policy discussion.

In September 2001 the rationale for port security measures was instantly revised, making it so much more than a matter of smuggling and cargo theft. Securing both the ports and vessels took on an urgency that made for a sharp learning curve for government and private sector alike. A ship entering a port represented a new vulnerability for the U.S. For a start, Congress produced the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002. The Coast Guard was given new responsibility, multi-stakeholder port security committees were formed, and facility plans were required. Fences and cameras went up where there had been none. The Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) was created for the maritime sector. The Port Security Grants Program was created and before long it was funded annually at $400 million, the dollar level being a particular success of the ports’ American Association of Port Authorities.

Then, in 2009, the severe recession prompted the new administration and Congress to formulate an economic stimulus package that included a $1.5 billion dollar competitive grant program for “shovel ready“ construction projects. What came to be called TIGER grants were awarded not just for the usual road and transit systems but also to ports and heavy rail. Freight related projects snared a third of the grants to the surprise of everyone including the folks at USDOT who realized that freight investments could be evaluated in cost/benefit terms more readily than Biden in Charlestonthe usual stretch of highway or transit rail. To date, TIGER grants have gone to 24 port projects in 16 states for a total of over $344 million in Federal funds alone.

Today the Federal government takes great interest in ports. They are seen as vital gateways for U.S. exports and critical modal connectors that when not functioning well can diminish American competitiveness. They are potentially vulnerable to terrorist attacks and are bell-weathers for our economic well-being. And they make impressive backdrops for politicians.

In 1985 I convened a meeting of a few port lobbyists to talk about shared issues. Thirty years later, a considerably larger Washington Port Reps group continues to meet and discuss a much larger issue agenda.  Pbea

(Thank you, Lillian Borrone and Jean Godwin, for your memory-jogging assistance.)

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

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Good Luck, Mr. Chairman.

In Infrastructure, Leadership, MTS Policy, Politics, Surface Transportation Policy on November 17, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Capitol Hill institution is a phrase that some incoming freshmen Members may not appreciate or find at all useful.  After all, some of them are arriving with the intent to de-institutionalize the place.

Democrat Jim Oberstar was de-institutionalized on Election Day.  He lost his re-election bid as did some other senior congressmen, including two other committee chairs.  Gene Taylor (D-MS) of the Seapower Subcommittee was one.

The chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee is both an institution and a creature of one, where he spent 36 years representing his Minnesota district.  He started on Capitol Hill in the early 1960s as a staffer for an earlier iteration of that committee.  His remarks the other day to reporters (as reported by Sarah Abruzzese of E&E) reflect a perspective born in another time that looks out of place in the litmus-test politics of today.

“I think you will see coming in a lack of institutional understanding and also it appears a lack of willingness to follow seasoned leaders,” Oberstar said.

That’s speculation on his part but not without cause.  A real question giving those of us here pause is how well the 112th Congress will function and, therefore, govern.  Many of us end the 111th Congress with doubtful expectations for the next one.  (Paul Page of the Journal of Commerce wonders about the prospects for governing also.)

Not to suggest it is the center of the policy universe but in the transportation sector there is much at stake.  Here are three instances.  Long pending aviation program and policy legislation has been immobilized and needs to reach the President’s desk.  Likewise, the significant surface transportation “reauthorization” legislation—to include reforms that hopefully will make up for the excesses and diversions of SAFETEA-LU—is overdue and guaranteed to take at least another year to address, if we are so lucky.  Whether this next “TEA” bill will contain the multi-modal sensibility, including marine elements, that many of us look for, is one of the consequential unknowns.  And speaking about bills that are rarely on time, how will the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works program–the basis for navigation infrastructure and commerce since the nation’s founding days–be made to function well in the next decades if Congress does not take up water resource (WRDA) legislsation?

There are bigger fish to fry in this town, of course – the government’s off-balance fiscal policy, the economy, and our international presence. But let’s consider the prospects on a smaller and more easily understood scale of those, nonetheless significant, challenges that face the transportation and public works panels of the House and Senate.  There is much to do in part because not much has been done over the years to address the nation’s infrastructure deficit or to focus on neglected sectors like the U.S. maritime.   As for the incoming class, Jim Oberstar’s conjecture is reasonable.

Among the members-elect, “there is little appetite for or appreciation of the broader policy questions that the nation faces with transportation,” he said — emphasizing that this was his opinion from reading about election outcomes across the country.

***

[Oberstar] expressed admiration for Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who served as the committee’s ranking member and is now almost certain to take over as chairman. “Mr. Mica and I developed over these four years a very close working relationship,” Oberstar said. “He and I were both quick to say we have disagreements on policy issues, but we found a way to mitigate those differences.”Oberstar listed multiple bills that the two parties were able to come to an agreement on and shepherd out of the committee, including a Water Resources and Development Act that successfully overcame a presidential veto, an Amtrak bill that the president signed, an aviation authorization bill (twice), and a Coast Guard authorization bill.

***

“I would have brought to the new Congress that history of cooperation and seeing and trusting, that’s even more important, trusting my partner in this process,” Oberstar said. “Going forward, you’ll have to rebuild all those personal relationships and committee structural relationships. And that will take time and will take something out of the process.”

How true.  While still holding out hope for what is to come, we will miss Jim Oberstar, the institution and that diminishing breed.   Good luck, Chairman Mica.   Pbea

Good Things to Hear — Pt. 1

In Intermodal, Leadership, Surface Transportation Policy on April 22, 2010 at 11:20 am

This from Environment & Energy Daily reporter Josh Vorhees, his March 25, 2010 story shortened here:

A widely popular transportation program created by last year’s stimulus package could see new life in the next multiyear highway bill.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said yesterday that she wants to include a provision similar to the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program in the bill her panel is drafting.

The $1.5 billion grant program for innovative, long-term work is aimed at funding multimodal projects that have traditionally been difficult to fund through existing federal programs.

Boxer asked DOT officials for help in drafting the TIGER language that would be part of her highway legislation.

DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari said his agency would be willing to work with the EPW Committee and called the TIGER program key to the administration’s transportation goals, specifically efforts to shift more freight off the nation’s roads to increase mobility, and combat congestion and the fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions that accompany it.

“I think the TIGER grants point the way to the future in intermodal transportation,” Porcari said.

I wasn’t at the hearing at which the exchange took place but on the basis of this story I hear what sounds like a change of heart.   Perhaps a change of heart that took place quite some time ago but it’s one that is worth noting nonetheless.

In early 2009 when the economic stimulus package was taking form Barbra Boxer spoke to attendees of a freight stakeholder gathering.  In strong terms Boxer rejected what was the $5.5B proposal of her colleague, Patty Murray, chair of the transportation appropriations subcommittee.  (Murray’s multi-modal discretionary grant proposal eventually was enacted at a $1.5B level and later dubbed TIGER grants by Secretary Ray LaHood.)

Barbara Boxer explanation included this: Murray’s discretionary grant proposal “takes Congress out” of the decision making.  Not to worry, she elaborated, her planned surface transportation bill–MAP 21–would take care of large infrastructure projects through a projects of national and regional significance approach, much as contained in SAFETEA-LU.

Barbara Boxer’s response was disappointing to reform minded freight folk in the audience but not especially surprising.  As chair of the Environment & Public Works Committee she would both write the next surface transportation bill and have great say over what projects to include in it.

So, here’s to Barbara Boxer for seeing the value in the TIGER experience and, apparently, trusting USDOT leadership to responsibly apply legislative and rulemaking parameters in the selection of projects.   Here’s to any other legislators who had misgivings about giving the Administration the “discretion” but now see how it can work.

Perhaps Chairman Boxer also takes comfort in noting that some  of the 51 selected projects in the first round are in districts and states of key transportation players in Congress.   And that’s okay.  We hardly expect grant selections to be done in antiseptic rooms totally devoid of political considerations.   Pbea

Rail + Road + Water = Surface Freight System

In Efficiency, Intermodal, Surface Transportation Policy on December 1, 2009 at 1:32 pm

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released a study in November comparing truck and rail fuel efficiency.  It’s an update of a 1991 FRA report.

The new study identifies rail as more efficient.  No surprise there.

The report, Comparative Evaluation of Rail and Truck Fuel Efficiency on Competitive Corridors (November 19, 2009), should be useful to Secretary Ray LaHood in developing a new freight policy.  But he should not leave it at road and rail.  Marine transport–the wet surface transportation–should be in the mix.

The Secretary has spoken about the need to understand how marine transportation can be better integrated with the surface transportation system.  He has identified marine highway development–and the capacity it would bring to domestic freight transportation system–as an administration objective.

The MARAD-funded TTI modal comparison report is very helpful in understanding how barge transportation compares to rail and road.  Does that tell us all we need to know?  After all, there’s more to domestic marine freight movement than tugs and barges.  More to the point, there’s more in store for coastwise and inland services than what is on the water today.  How would the planned, new Ro-Ro and container vessels compare to rail and truck?   Policy makers need complete 3-mode data to make complete policy decisions.

The freight logistics industry has pointed to the lack of a national freight policy.  The Freight Stakeholders Coalition announced in May its suggested “platform” for a freight policy.  As the platform suggests the policy should “foster operational and environmental efficiencies in goods movement.”  The platform also calls for the establishment of a “multi-modal freight office” in the Office of the Secretary (OST) in the interest of advancing freight mobility.

A multi-modal view that is not hampered by an old view of how transportation works is what is called for today.  Greater fuel efficiency isn’t an ideological issue.  It’s very much an economic matter to business and a bi-partisan policy matter as we understand the country’s interest in energy security.  Likewise we see environmental issues–emissions, particularly–becoming more of a business and policy concern.

That’s why the developers of the GIFT model are attracting interest.   Dr. James Corbett of the University of Delaware and Dr. James Winebrake of the Rochester Institute of  Technology–with the support of USDOT, MARAD and others–are developing the Geospatial Intermodal Freight Transportation (GIFT) model.  GIFT enables the fuel and emission comparison of modes for specific freight routes.  In other words, logistics planners soon will have a tool that goes beyond the one-sided “carbon calculator” analysis available on some rail and marine transportation company websites.

Corbett and Winebrake add further value with their IF-TOLD Mitigation Framework that they describe as “A Context for Mode Shifting Discussions.”

Some good work is being done to provide more information for making modal decisions and enable the development of smarter freight policy.  With any luck the policy makers will determine what multi-modal information is available as well as what additional information is needed before deciding on a long overdue national freight policy and the successor to SAFETEA-LU.   Pbea

California Trailblazing to a Miami Tunnel

In Intermodal, Ports, Surface Transportation Policy on November 17, 2009 at 11:04 pm

When earth was turned in 1997 for the Alameda Corridor project in the San Pedro Bay port region more than one kind of ground breaking was occurring.  The Port of Miami is a beneficiary.

In freight transportation policy circles the Alameda Corridor project one day may be legend.  The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were the gaping end of a freight funnel that emptied import boxes onto the exit rails and streets.  In essence the solution was to eliminate grade crossings by building a blow-grade rail way out of town.  A big project with a $2.4B price tag.  A key to the financing was Federal credit assistance.  The project and two others in California were the first to benefit by this innovation.  A paper on the FHWA website tells the story.

Due to Federal budgetary constraints, however, the grant was not deemed to be a fiscally or politically viable option. An alternative form of Federal support for this project was needed, and by 1997 the answer was clear: Federal credit enhancement in the form of a junior-lien loan to ACTA.

The fiscal year 1997 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act (Public Law 104-208) provided $58.7 million for DOT to cover the capital reserve charges associated with making a direct loan of up to $400 million to ACTA for the Alameda Corridor Project. This represents an actual budgetary cost of 14.7 percent of the face value of credit assistance. The legislation also provided that the loan be repaid within 30 years from the date of project completion and that the interest rate on the loan not exceed the 30-year Treasury rate.

Inspired by the success of leveraging non-Federal investment for large infrastructure project, particularly private financing, Congress in 1998 fashioned a fully articulated TIFIA program.  It was adjusted in SAFETEA-LU with a lowered threshold to make more projects eligible.

Nearly $7 billion in projects in 13 states have benefited since TIFIA was created by Congress.  The Port of Miami’s rail freight tunnel had an uncertain future but with the October announcement the financing is in place and a $607 million construction project soon will be underway.  Not bad.   Pbea

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