Marine Transportation System

We’re Just Getting Started

In Marine Highway, MTS Policy on October 8, 2010 at 10:04 am

[This first appeared in the America’s Marine Highway website and newsletter.]

Advocating for the AMH: We’re Just Getting Started

If we’ve learned anything about the developing American marine highway it is that it is developing incrementally and slowly.  A few nice-sized steps but no big leaps.

I have little doubt that the market will eventually demand greater use of the marine mode for domestic goods movement as the limits of landside capacity reach an economic tipping point and the imperative strengthens to use less fuel and produce fewer emissions. But the question to ask is whether it is wise to wait.  In 2007 Congress answered the question…sort of.

In a multi-faceted “energy independence and security” bill the energy efficiency of the marine mode was recognized. With the signing of Public Law 110-140 Washington said that it would be to the nation’s benefit to make greater use of coastwise and inland marine transportation. The U.S. Department of Transportation was handed a program outline and a few tools. It was told to return to Congress with recommendations as to any additional things that might be done to make it work. (No report as yet.) Then in 2009 Congress gave its approval to a grant program and appropriated a modest sum of $7 million.  [Note: since this writing grants were awarded.]

This year USDOT finally stepped up to implement that new policy and program. In August some projects were designated as eligible for grant funding and others were identified as “initiatives” to be encouraged.

The starting gun sounded on the American Marine Highway program…thus also signaling one of very few opportunities to improve the outlook for U.S. flag shipping.

There’s much to be done here in Washington. Federal funding is not the be-all and end-all of the marine highway program but it is crucial. Funding is how policy intent is measured in Washington. Is the $7 million the start of a serious effort or just flash-in-the-pan funding? Without an AMH budget for the Maritime Administration it will not have the program and staff resources to do much of anything in the next years. Without funding for AMH grants the Federal program will seem toothless. States and other transportation planners will ignore it. Start-ups may go only a short distance for lack of resources to secure that needed barge or crane.

Likewise, the policy provisions signed by President George W. Bush in 2007 are just a toe in the door. The next Congress should look more deeply into how marine highways can contribute to the overall transportation system and then decide what to do about it and the shipyard infrastructure needed to support it. I think there is plenty the legislature and this change-minded administration can do about it.

The next year or two will be a critical period that will decide if the new marine highway policy is to be taken seriously. Grant funding in FY 2011, commencing October 1, is unlikely, but it need not be a serious blow to the marine highway effort. For starters, we need to work to secure funding in the FY2012 budget and strengthen interest among policy makers.

Progress in the next years may continue to come in small increments along with an occasional large step. It is not easy to turn around business thinking about logistics or change attitudes in government about the role of domestic waterborne shipping but it can be done. Whether the marine highway effort in Washington falters or advances will depend on how strong and effective is the advocate crew…those of us who want to see more stars and stripes flying on the water.  Pbea

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