POLITICO, the Washington, DC daily journal, published a story on May 22nd by reporter Jessica Meyers on one of my favorite topics, marine highway development. I had hoped for more but then a partisan, as I am, is always hard to please.
It was the multiple titles sitting atop the various pages and editions of the piece that got to me. Like taunts from the headline writer. “Industry appears stalled on marine highways.” “Federal marine highways project hard to launch.” And one that elicited a quiet groan, “Marine highways projects often sink.” All for a single article.
You’d think one title would suffice.
It’s hard to argue with the conclusions of a writer whose research uncovers little evidence of successful services, hears sources say there is no market or that it is still being identified, and then calls it as she or he sees it.
Let’s face it. The shelf isn’t lined with gleaming trophies of winning marine highway projects.
Then there was this piece that appeared the next day in Lloyd’s List entitled “Built in the USA.” “Tobias Koenig’s decision to withdraw financial support from American Feeder Lines…has opened a fresh debate on the US-build requirement of the 1920 law.”
Whether the frustration of a European shipping investor (“we intend to profit from the opportunities, and to profit well”) who had hoped to reinvent American coastal shipping and ship building has given us a fresh debate, or is just another log to grow the flames of the US-build debate, isn’t so important.
The fact is the debate continues and the heat is being felt. Others–whether Hawaiian shippers or Connecticut-based Per Heidenreich–are among the more recent voices for change. The US-build requirement is typically the target.
The above articles point to the challenge facing marine highway service start-ups and the broader Jones Act container/trailer carrier community whose market is pretty much limited to the non-contiguous trade and whose fleet has far too many old fuel burners for the new Emissions Control Area (ECA) age we are about to enter.
Two weeks prior to those articles going to print The Maritime Executive folks convened a long planned “Revitalizing the Maritime Industry” forum. It was a Jones Act centric program and audience, although there might have been some outliers in the room.
The two-day program opened with a plainly stated concern about how the Jones Act industry today finds itself in the position of having to defend the cabotage principle instead of the onus being on challengers to explain why it would be in the nation’s interest to allow the Jones Act walls to tumble.
John Graykowski, former Deputy Administrator of MARAD and Jones Act advocate, said at the opening of the forum that “the future isn’t as clear or…as bright as any of us would like it to be.” He noted “challenges” that don’t seem to diminish and “an ever present growing threat” to the Jones Act. He pointed to fewer maritime industry advocates today in government, and to challenges to the cargo preference program and the protected non-contiguous trade.
In the background, as one easily took from the forum’s title, was the fact that important elements of the Jones Act industry have been in decline for too long a time, a condition that the marine highway effort hopes to reverse.
Along the way there were unequivocal and unchallenged statements heard in the hall as to the importance of the domestic maritime sector to the nation, the competitiveness of American crews and the competitiveness of American shipyards. Also heard was the immutability of the Jones Act.
The problem isn’t that it is broke, the message went. The problem is that aggressors are gathering at the gate and our defenders are fewer. This is a time for a collective “gut check.” The walls must be defended. Whatever happens, the law ain’t gonna change.
A few people with microphones suggested the need for some flexibility in the law. A short term reflagging of suitable, foreign built ships to enable a demonstration of marine highway service in the North Atlantic is an example that I suggested. (I argued that position on behalf of American Feeder Lines in its attempt earlier this year to win government approval of a limited waiver with the condition that US-built ships would be ordered to replace them.)
There were Jones Act defenders in the room who themselves are frustrated with the no-exceptions perspective. But it is a frustration that is not given expression in public, certainly not in a gathering such as this.
Cabotage is a principle important to the national economy and defense. However, as I suggested in a presentation at the forum, the present law is nearly 100 years old. “I don’t think that living in the twentieth century today is necessarily how we get” to a revitalized American industry. The principle is sound but how we get to a revitalized industry, including a stronger shipbuilding sector, is the question. Once revitalized the industry can be more successful in defending both the principle and the gate.
MarEx Editor-in-Chief Tony Munoz, convener of the event, concluded the program by saying the forum and the attendees are the “tip of the spear” to “move this agenda forward.”
But, I wonder, will preserving every jot and tittle of the status quo be the only element of that agenda? Pbea
An earlier version of this appeared in the “Deep Water Port notes” newsletter of the Connecticut Maritime Coalition.