I filed a version of this with the good folks at the Connecticut Maritime Coalition whose Deep Water Port notes newsletter carries my perspectives from Washington…
A few years back the trade press started asking from their columns and story headlines why it was taking so long for marine highway progress—on the water and in government. To some extent the questions “why” and “when” reflected skepticism and an understandable response to some of the slam-dunk rhetoric that advocates used in the first years of the last decade. The advocates’ logic was simple: Roads are congested; water is not. New highways are expensive; water is free.
Of course, it’s not that simple. (Just as the argument that Jones Act = No Marine Highway is too pat a dismissal.)
Even long-time marine highway supporter Clay Cook asked impatiently—and not without cause—in last year’s May/June Maritime Executive whether USDOT marine highway program efforts were “dead in the water?”
What is taking so long?
On the business side it doesn’t help that the economy went into the tank. Cargo and freight volumes dropped. Capital became scarce. People and companies ducked into secure holes, stopped spending and started stuffing the mattress. Then there was the rapid rise of diesel prices only to drop just as marine efficiencies started to look attractive.
But that hardly explains it all. Modal shifts don’t happen on a dime. Yes, trucking has its challenges but driver shortages and HOS regs alone don’t steer companies to the water. Besides, intermodal rail has been doing very well and can be expected to be even more competitive in offering services to trucking.
One thing is simple: marine highway service has to make sense in economic and logistics terms to the folks who control the cargo. Some truckers and shippers have said in public forums how water transport does make sense for their businesses. They even qualify as MH advocates. Their numbers can and will grow but more needs to be done to make the prospect for marine highway service more real and the information more available.
A few more operations on the water could make a difference. The long awaited M-580 “Green Trade Corridor” COB service between Stockton and Oakland will be up and running in a couple months. On the government side of things we also will see some steps that could make a difference.
- In early February House Ways & Means will hold a hearing on maritime tax issues including a Harbor Maintenance Tax exemption for domestic moves of non-bulk cargo and the tonnage tax, which presently can frustrate the start of marine highway services. The chair of the subcommittee, Pat Tiberi (R-OH), is also sponsor of the exemption bill, HR 1533.
- Related to that is the pending House Surface Transportation bill that may carry the HMT exemption legislation in a first ever “maritime title” in a surface transportation authorization bill.
- The Navy/MARAD “dual use” project should get interesting in the coming months. Herbert Engineering’s October 28th report for MARAD, coordinated with market and operation studies, is a guide to vessel designs that could work for the commercial and, when needed, national defense markets. The strategy to replace the tired RRF with new, commercially viable ships is hinged on MH development taking off. New incentives to help marine highway services to capitalize and get off the ground may be part of a dual use package considered within the Administration.
- The M-580 project benefited by Federal capital grant money as have some other MH related projects. Don’t expect marine highway program grants to be issued this or next year but USDOT is announcing a 4th round of TIGER grants (Notice of Funding Availability to be published January 31, 2012.) Watch for MH related proposals.
- Also, let’s not forget that the MARAD funded market/business plan studies for M-5, M-55 and M-95 corridors are to be released in the next few months.
None of the above presently qualifies as full fledged game changers but the potential is there. There is more to come on the marine highway story in 2012. Pbea