Marine Transportation System

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.)

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  1. […] last wrote of how Washington policy makers and agencies grew more interested in the port sector and how ports, […]

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