Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘shippers’

The Murray-Cantwell Approach to Problem Solving

In Competition, Congress, Infrastructure, Intermodal, Water Resources on September 23, 2013 at 7:05 pm

This past week State of Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell introduced the Maritime Goods Movement Act of 2013 (S. 1905). Their inspiration for legislation came from what I have described as the unintended consequences of the Harbor Maintenance Tax, starting with complaints from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma that the Canadian competition to the north and the shippers, who are obliged to pay the Harbor Maintenance Tax when entering U.S. ports, were taking full advantage of the cost-differential where the HMT does not apply.

It is a complaint that was given some appearance of validity in a Federal Maritime Commission report issued last year and, a bit more convincingly, by data comparisons published by The Journal of Commerce last month.

At the request of the senators the FMC studied the role played by the HMT (0.125% of cargo value) in decisions to use the Vancouver and Prince Rupert gateways. The report, adopted by the FMC commissioners on a party line vote, didn’t make a strong case as to cause and effect. It did suggest that if an equivalent of the tax were applied in Canada “a portion of the U.S. cargo…likely would revert to using U.S. West Coast ports.” The report concluded by suggesting any remedy is in the hands of Congress not the regulatory agency.

The JOC looked at the issue by comparing market share within the PNW and among U.S. West Coast ports, where the HMT is uniformly applied. This is their finding in a nutshell:

Port data collected by The Journal of Commerce shows clearly that while Seattle and Tacoma have lost no market share relative to U.S. West Coast ports, their market share in the Pacific Northwest, a region that includes the Canadian ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, has slipped significantly in recent years.

That may not be conclusive of HMT culpability but it is indicative of competitive weakness just south of the 49th Parallel.  The comparative strength in British Columbia could be attributed to the HMT in addition to other factors, among them the efficient intermodal delivery system established as part of Canada’s ongoing Pacific Gateway Transportation Strategy.

Enter the Maritime Goods Movement Act User Fee proposed in the bill. The HMT would be repealed and then, for all practical purposes, recreated as the “MGMA User Fee.” In virtually every respect it would be like the HMT. The principal difference is that it also would be applied to U.S. bound cargo that first enters North America through Canada or Mexico.  Shippers would pay when the cargo crosses the land border.  On this bill rest the hopes of Puget Sound’s largest ports.

But the senators didn’t stop there. They also decided to try to fix the issue that is troubling most U.S. ports—the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The bill would make several changes—including expanded uses of the HMTF such as are found in the Senate-passed WRDA (S. 601)—but let’s here focus on the greatest failing of the law as it now stands. That is the under-spending of HMTF funds.

Unlike the RAMP Act that would rely on a parliamentary mechanism to leverage full funding over the objections of appropriators, and unlike the WRDA bills of the Senate and House that set funding targets at which appropriators might aim, the MGMA bill uses a direct approach. At the bottom of page 10 is this: “[N]o fee may be collected…except to the extent that the expenditure of the fee [for allowable activities] is provided for in advance in an appropriations Act.” It is a rarely used means tying revenue collections to the spending of those revenues. The transaction would occur outside the section 302 allocations that cap appropriations committee spending. In doing so it would remove the incentive for appropriators to limit allocations and would treat the HMTF more like a dedicated trust fund.

This approach is employed in other areas of government where a user fee is collected to support a specific function of government. The only downside is that to meet the requirements of budget rules Congress also would have to identify offsetting revenue to fill the hole that would be created when, as a first step to creating the new MGMA User Fee, the HMT would be repealed, thereby eliminating 10 years of projected revenue.  Yes, it gets murky down deep in the budget process. But the result would be the very easily understood concept of “dollars in, dollars out,” as a Murray aide summarized.

Finding the offset, in the range of billions of dollars, presents a real challenge to the bill sponsors. There is a reason why other attempts at legislative solutions have produced little more than “sense of Congress” statements of principle and funding targets that are…well…just targets. The climb up this legislative Hill is very steep and the obstacles—including leadership objections and the search for offsetting revenue—have been daunting.

While we are noting the degree of incline ahead, let’s add to this particular bill the likelihood of complaints to the State Department from Mexico and Canada, who are major U.S. trading partners, and opposition from shippers and the railroads that carry their cargo into the U.S.

But that doesn’t mean it is the wrong solution to an HMTF problem that has existed since the early 1990s. It is the right one because it would be a more effective and lasting way to link the revenue to the reason for the revenue, which is to keep American harbor channels maintained and our ports competitive.  Pbea

An Opportunity, Not Just An Optimist’s Musing

In Green Transportation, Marine Highway, Surface Transportation Policy on July 6, 2010 at 11:22 pm

I couldn’t pass up this tease question in an emailed promotion for a conference (in Marseille, if anyone has a spare ticket on the QM2 to offer a humble blogger).

Is Climate Change a challenge or an excellent incentive to facilitate the renaissance of the shipping and maritime industries?

Okay, I’ll bite.  My answer is yes.  It’s a challenge and it presents a generational opportunity that the maritime sector can’t afford to pass up.

Can climate change actions revitalize the shipping and maritime industries?  (Another question posed by the conference organizers.)   That not only is a timely question but it is the right question along with some others:

Will the American maritime sector will take proper advantage of the persistent national environmental and energy imperatives?  Will the U.S. industry only tinker around the edges of design and technology?  Or will it aggressively leverage global climate policy concerns to transform marine transport and services into  a new market opportunity?  Moreover, will the industry actually try to engage the interest of the US government in such a major transformation?

Marine transportation has some natural advantages.  It tends to avoid little things like 10-mile backups on the turnpike.  Its carrying capacity makes it the most efficient on a ton mile basis.  That efficiency can also mean some comparative environmental benefits, along with some less pleasing emissions.

But as we have seen those pluses are not sufficient to move UPS to adopt coastal water routes or to convince government to integrate marine highways into surface transportation policy.  Nor have various studies as to those benefits convinced shippers and other skeptics of Jones Act shipping.

After all, notwithstanding some attractive plans for new marine highway service, the industry has been slow to present concrete evidence that it has the will to leverage climate and energy policy drivers in order to bring about its own “renaissance.”  I reach once again for a convenient contrast: the railroads.

The Class Ones could see the time was ripe.   They have advertised the public benefits of  rail freight , they have  leveraged Federal support for the building of “green” locomotives, and they came up with a major bid to Congress,  anyone who would listen, for a 25 percent investment tax credit for infrastructure improvements to their systems.

I know none of this is simple stuff for the maritime sector.  And of course the economics are daunting to companies that operate on thin margins.  But does the industry–especially the US flag stakeholders–have a vision as to what it can be?   What the vessels can look like?  What cleaner fuels can be burned to make the environmental benefits of marine transport undeniable?   What visible improvements can be made to demonstrate that change is taking place to transform 20th century operations into 21st century wow!

As I have noted elsewhere in this blog, give the Sailor and the Secretary good reason to say “cutting edge” when talking about a vessel or a major advance in maritime goods movement.

We are handed an opportunity when Congress debates climate action measures and major reforms to energy policy.  Pbea

Transformational Transportation, Part 2

In Green Transportation on July 31, 2009 at 11:21 pm

Persons famliar with Secretary LaHood’s meeting with public and port officials in Oakland tell me that folks might be surprised to know which California official was most enthusiastic  about the prospects for Bay Area marine highway service.  Among those at the meeting were two California cabinet members (Food & Agriculture and Business, Transportation & Housing) and the director of Caltrans.

The Eco Transport project has been in development for a few years.  The business plan is to reduce the need for  truck moves into Oakland by deploying barges to move containers between Oakland and the Ports of Stockton, initially, and Sacramento.  The company notes that such an operation also will make unnecessary a great many empty container moves and the associated costs of fuel and exhaust.   Export containers could be loaded heavier in Stockton because they would not have to meet road weight restrictions.  And carbon counters are sure to like the shrinking of the significant carbon footprint of trucks carrying imports into the central region, and California exports to Northern California’s principal international gateway.  Indeed the company has done its due diligence to substantiate the environmental benefits of their new marine highway service.  And the result has been the endorsement of regional and State air quality agencies.

So which official at the meeting revealed great eagerness and anticipation about the green barge service?  It was Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura.  He and the growers/shippers of the Central Valley are enthusiastic about the prospects for barges carrying goods to Oakland and then on to a ship for the export market.  And when a shipper is looking forward to taking  its goods to the water that’s a very encouraging sign.

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