Marine Transportation System

Archive for the ‘Intermodal’ Category

A Perspective on Port Dominoes

In Competition, Efficiency, Intermodal, Ports on October 3, 2014 at 12:52 am

A few days ago over 100 people packed a room at high up in Baltimore’s World Trade Center for a day-long forum on “port congestion” convened by the Federal Maritime Commission. It was the second of four planned public meetings–the first was in Los Angeles and the next two will occur in New Orleans and Charleston. The window views from the meeting venues will not be the only differences in what is observed at the four sessions but there are bound to be things in common, too.

The subject of congestion means different things depending on where you are. The severity of the problem also depends on when the post-Panamax ships will arrive in greater numbers to the Gulf and on the East Coast.

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach qualify as Congestion Central if only as a matter of volume and a PierPass system that is working only too well. Some of what they are experiencing could be visited upon the Port of New York/New Jersey in less two years’ time when the Panama Canal gives way to the big ships and if certain problems are not fixed by that time. But that does not mean New York Harbor isn’t experiencing head-throbbing congestion today. Name the problem or snafu and the bistate port has experienced it like punches to the gut. So much so that it did not take much convincing to get terminals, truckers, shippers, labor, carriers and others in the room and agree to hold hands and embark on a waterfront version of a 12-step program.

Norfolk may have 50-feet of water to suit, first, colliers and now big box ships but it also is scrambling to have infrastructure and systems ready in a couple years. Truck and terminal-related problems prompted Norfolk’s own come-to-jesus/how-can-we-fix-this? process. Like other ports the problem is more on land than in the water. The concern isn’t about ships scraping bottom but about terminals getting stuck without a chassis or with too many ships and too little in the way of equipment, labor, trucks or gates. It helps that the Vice President brought a $15 million TIGER grant to Norfolk last week to help pay for improvements to gates and last-mile infrastructure over the next few years.

In the South Atlantic the stories and problems will sound a bit different, as they will in the Gulf. Ports there undoubtedly will paint favorable comparisons to their troubled brethren to the north in a sort of Alfred E. Newman way–“What, me congested?”–and not without reason. But there the trucking and chassis management problems may be only in early stages of development and more of the big ships (and perhaps big-ship-challenges) may be in their future. In fact they are counting on it.

A perspective on the problems facing terminals recently appeared in the Journal of Commerce. The opinion piece by John Crowley, Executive Director of the National Association of Waterfront Employers (NAWE, a client) was cited at the FMC forum by Bill Shea, CEO of Direct ChassisLink (DCLI) in its enumeration of congestion-inducing factors that are in play to one extent or another at U.S. container ports. Crowley pointed to 12 factors including the bunching of ship arrivals, larger ships and cargo discharges, local traffic congestion, terminal capacity and gate hours, truck driver decisions, labor shortages, and even severe weather such as has been seen in the Gulf and more recently from Superstorm Sandy. Most of those were mentioned by speakers at the Baltimore session this week.

Crowley’s piece speaks to the fact that the symptoms of what is being called port congestion are seen throughout much of the intermodal supply chain, which is to say, not just right there at the marine terminal. “The intermodal freight system…consists of market-based industry segments. There are pressures aimed at making each segment more operationally efficient and increasingly productive. It’s a system of nonstop competition, hypersensitive economics and narrow margins. We see it in the increasing size of container ships, the investments made in marine terminal technology and capacity,” etc. “The market determines demands on price and service levels from the modal carriers which, in turn is felt throughout the supply chain and by all modal carriers. Situated in the midst of those demands are marine terminals that strive for each modal operation – marine, rail and truck – to be roughly in sync.”

John Crowley “encourages all industry sectors to collaborate, as much as practicable and permissible under law, to arrive at solutions that will serve their mutual interests… Our operators rely on each mode to similarly commit. Solutions may not come as easily and swiftly as we all would like, but they will have to come about through adaptation in the marketplace by the principal actors in the intermodal freight system…” He calls for government policies that foster market solutions where possible. “We welcome positive and appropriate federal involvement that contributes to solutions but will resist unproductive, regulatory intrusions into terminal operations and where even well-intended government involvement will only frustrate the development of market solutions.” Find the full piece here.

Those views were also heard by the folks in the crowded 21st floor meeting room in Baltimore.  The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s Rick Larrabee described one of the guiding principals in the formation of the Port Performance Task Force 10 months ago. The port’s stakeholders had to be willing to “look inside” for answers as much to look to others in the port to fix the problems. Few of those problems stand alone. A line of dominoes is not the perfect metaphor but it will do. The trucker’s dilemma, for example, is one that is felt and affected by other actors in the supply chain. The companies and drivers have something to contribute but without changes in other sectors the drayage problems will become more severe; the congestion will worsen.

Dire predictions underscored the calls for solutions.

Collective efforts formed to tackle problems in the ports of San Pedro Bay, New York Harbor and Hampton Roads and as a result there is reason for optimism. But as several people told the FMC commissioners this week, we will have a rough year or two, starting this winter, until those solutions are implemented by the principal actors in the port marketplace.

Meanwhile, the FMC will hold its forums. The commissioners and staff are taking notes and those will emerge in some form of a report. It is good for the government to be alert to what is going on at the nation’s gateways and the problems of the freight logistics system. That agency may even decide to take some action to the extent its limited jurisdiction allows. But it is up to the chassis, terminal, truck, ship, rail and distribution center operators and the beneficial cargo owners ultimately to figure out how to make things work better.   Pbea

 

Advertisements

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

So Spake the Freight Stakeholders

In Congress, Federal Government, Intermodal, Surface Transportation Policy on June 4, 2012 at 11:49 am

The Freight Stakeholders Coalition–a group of 18 or more organizations–spoke  freight to power.  But in today’s Washington, where the policy makers often wear policy blinders, will the Deciders (to use Dubya-speak) listen to the goods movement call for change?

Back in 2005, when SAFETEA-LU came out of the House-Senate conference cooker, the Stakeholders were dumbfounded to realize that the negotiators cut from the bill a key freight provision on which there had seemed to be agreement.   It was a 2 percent set-aside funding requirement for freight related projects.

It didn’t take long for the Stakeholders to regroup, this time in sync with the 50+ State DOT leaders (AASHTO), and produce a 10-point paper making a collective case for goods movement policy.    Still feeling the SAFETEA-LU sting years later the Stakeholders sent a letter to House and Senate conferees–the people tasked with coming up with a surface transportation bill to send to the President.  The letter contains the 10-point paper and concludes:

Now more than ever, the needs of our goods movement network must be addressed as system use continues to grow in lockstep with America’s recovering economy. The inclusion of a national freight plan with supporting policies, strategy and funding will help ensure America’s international competitiveness, create jobs and bolster the U.S. economic recovery.

But will the conferees–who largely take their cue from a small number of party and committee leaders–get it done?  As we learned from the sad SAFETEA-LU experience just because there are fairly substantial freight provisions in the MAP-21 Senate bill (S. 1813) doesn’t mean the final product will take goods movement seriously.   Besides, the House-passed version (H.R. 4348) was a Plan B vehicle to get to conference with the Senate.  It doesn’t have freight provisions.  For that matter, the version that was reported from the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, but which failed to get to a House vote, H.R. 7, contains little in the way of substantive freight provisions.

Will the conferees get it done?  Larry Ehl rightly has cause to ask a more basic question: Are Transportation Bill Negotiations on the Rocks?  Ben Goldman also see bad news clues.  Pessimists, which may include most who work around Washington these days, would observe that this particular Congress seems to want to get not much done.  Some legislators–tea partiers especially–would proudly label that an achievement.

I still think it can get a bill done, however, despite a significant push by the private sector for strong freight provisions, one wonders what the House conferees will agree to.  Moving on…

Days after sending their letter to the conferees the Stakeholders gave cheers for a senator’s letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

In her letter of May 31, Maria Cantwell (D-WA) told Secretary LaHood to “tear down bureaucratic barriers and inefficiencies” in the modally stove-piped department by creating a freight-focused operation in the Office of the Secretary.  The senator pointed to ways that her home state has realized benefits of “freight coordination, prioritization, and collaboration” between the public and private sectors.

Over the years Congress has been importuned to create a freight office, establish an assistant secretary post for goods movement, etc.  But silly arguments about expanding government and creating new bureaucracy usually keeps those ideas from being given a serious hearing.  The implementing agency of national transportation policy remains structured as if the modes rarely if ever meet.

But as we know, in the real world they are meeting with ever increasing frequency as the market seeks ever more efficient ways to getting the job done.  On dock rail.  Intermodal yards.  Trains to airports.  Boxes shuttled from trucks to ships to barges to trucks to rail to….

The senator’s letter speaks to the need for a  “high-level and coordinated multimodal freight initiative.” *  She reminded the Secretary he doesn’t have to wait for Congress to create a formal structure.

… I strongly encourage you to establish a high-level and coordinated multimodal freight initiative at the U.S. Department of Transportation using your existing administrative authority.  If established, this initiative office should report directly to you, include a special assistant designated with specific responsibility for freight movement, and endeavor to improve federal freight policy, planning, and investment across all modes.

Or as one might say in Obama-speak: Yes, he can.

Secretary LaHood is leaving the Obama Administration later this year.  Let this be his gift to his successor.  He can set up a freight office down the hall from his own.  He can start the process of directing the DOT stovepipes, which in truth do talk to each other about some freight objectives and the occasional project, to be even more intentional about it.  He can ask his modal administrators and freight staff for their input on how best to get it done.  But most of all he can make a serious effort–as serious as his pretty effective distracted driving campaign–to bring his department and government policy to where the mostly private sector freight innovators have been for a good long while.   Pbea

* Kudos to the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors for its diligent efforts in advancing the freight message on Capitol Hill.

Time for a Maritime Title

In Intermodal, Marine Highway, MTS Policy, Surface Transportation Policy, Water Resources on January 30, 2012 at 1:16 am

In a few days we will see if there is a maritime title, or section, in what is traditionally the highway bill.  What’s that, you say?  You heard right.

Back in July 2011  House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) let us peek at the planned contents of the surface transportation bill that finally will get its debut in committee on February 2nd.

That summary, aptly named A New Direction, included a description of maritime transportation provisions, which would have as much symbolic as substantive significance for those of us working the water.  Including a few marine transportation provisions in the once-in-a-decade highway and transit legislation could prove to be a foot-in-the-door for more of the same when the next big surface bill comes along.  (Some of us impertinently suggest that marine transportation in fact is a surface mode…the wet one.)

But one can argue that the foot has been in the door for quite some time.  The passenger-oriented Ferry Boat Discretionary Program has been the lone marine transportation element in surface transportation policy and program since 1991 and the landmark ISTEA. Interestingly, the ferry program is managed by the Federal Highway Administration–a fact that some folks in the Maritime Administration probably still have difficulty acknowledging–because that is where the money is.

John Mica has for years talked about having a transportation “vision” that is intermodal, multimodal and makes greater use of the maritime.  The Chairman’s intentions revealed last year with regard to a maritime title included three basic objectives:

  • Ensure full use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund resources; only 60 percent of annual revenues are appropriated for channel maintenance.
  • Encourage  more maritime related activity including “short-sea shipping” by exempting cargo from the Harbor Maintenance Tax when moving between US ports.
  • Improve Corps of Engineer civil works project delivery.

This week the committee will meet to produce the bill.  There may be a maritime title with some placeholders to be added later.  Here’s what we see in our crystal ball:

  • The Corps project piece is not expected to be in the bill.  Such typical WRDA subject matter may be held back more as a matter of legislative strategy than anything.
  • Jurisdiction over the particular legislative remedy for the HMTF issue–contained in HR 104–is shared with the House Rules Committee where there is opposition to the so-called RAMP approach.  Appropriators are fighting it as well.  If RAMP isn’t included in the bill it won’t be for lack of trying by many stakeholders in the port navigation sector who have encouraged over 150 legislators to co-sponsor.
  • Maybe the topic that has the best chance of getting in the new maritime title is the HMT exemption for non-bulk cargo. But because the subject is within the jurisdiction of the Ways and Means Committee Mica’s transportation panel is expected to defer to the tax committee on bill language (likely to look like HR 1533).  So keep an eye on the Ways and Means hearing to occur this Wednesday. The HMT and HMTF issues will be heard and when that committee later meets to take up the transportation bill’s tax-related provisions we may find the HMT provision added.  (The subject of the vessel tonnage tax also is to be brought up at the Wednesday hearing.)

It looks like a maritime title will have, at best, a couple provisions. But if by the time the surface transportation measure goes to the House floor its 1000 or so pages include a maritime title–maybe only a wet highway provision to go with the dry highway ones–we should take a minute to savor a small provision and an encouraging direction for transportation policy.  Pbea

HMT Exemption: Just What the Dock Is Ordering

In Infrastructure, Intermodal, Marine Highway on April 25, 2011 at 11:24 pm

It is good to see that some U.S. House Members reintroduced legislation to waive the Harbor Maintenance Tax for cargo so as to remove a disincentive for use of American Marine Highways.

It is also good to see that the bill’s sponsor is Rep. Patrick Tiberi (tea-berry), the chairman of the Select Revenue Measures Subcommittee of the House Ways & Means Committee, the panel with jurisdiction.   The bill’s original co-sponsors are Steve LaTourette who, like Tiberi, is a Republican from Ohio, and Democrat Brian Higgins of Buffalo, New York.

The bill is H.R. 1533, a revisiting of the Higgins bill of the last congress. Mr. Higgins, now that the Democrats are in the minority, welcomed a colleague from the majority party to be the principal sponsor.

As written the bill would exempt non-bulk cargo from the HMT when moving between two U.S. ports or between the U.S. and Canada on the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway system.  In contrast to some other versions of the bill in recent years the Seaway system is defined to include Nova Scotia.  For some that extends the HMT break a bit too far beyond the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.  Others, starting with the Great Lakes representatives whose bill it is, like the idea of having Halifax and the proposed Melford container port in the mix.

Nevertheless, advocates for marine highway development are pleased to see the first bill of this sort introduced in the 112th Congress and will work to see the measure advance in the House and the Senate.

An HMT exemption is not a guarantee of success for those who would carry cargo in domestic and Great Lakes moves.  The HMT cost to shippers is only one aspect of the cost of shipping and one factor in a decision to use marine transportation over a land route.

But removing it as a cost and administrative detail could make a difference in that decision by a beneficial cargo owner or a trucking company that might want to add the water option to its services.  And removing it would also be a further signal of a shifting policy view that see public and private benefits in encouraging use of underutilized freight system capacity. Mr. Higgins has it right:  “We want to again make waterways business-friendly, promoting the robust flow of goods and the creation of quality jobs.”

Those who agree with that sentiment would do well to encourage additional co-sponsors or the introduction of like measures to add to the call for action on the HMT.   Pbea

I’m Dreaming of a New Congress

In Federal Government, Intermodal, Marine Highway, MTS Policy, Surface Transportation Policy, Water Resources on January 4, 2011 at 12:25 am

The new two-year Congress commences on January 5th and it promises to be different in ways beyond the changed list of sworn-in men and women.

In fact I think that we could see the start of some structural changes in Washington and maybe…just maybe…something good could come out of it.  Am I betting on it?  No. Washington is too fond of the fetal position.

However this time issues of a more fundamental nature are getting attention.  Those issues have been around for a long time, long before ARRA, TARP and the big dollar spending and tax cuts necessitated by the severe drop in the economy.  And it appears that some spines were stiffened in the last election and not just on the Republican side.  There appears to be more universal acknowledgment than ever before as to:

  • Growing entitlement programs that dominate non-defense spending and with predicted revenue shortfalls.
  • A large defense budget we can’t afford to leave off the table when cutting spending.
  • A tax system in need of a significant overhaul and simplification.
  • An infrastructure policy of disinvestment that makes our transportation less efficient and dooms us to second place status in the world economy.
  • Our economic and national security in the hands of oil producing countries most of which, at best, do not share our democratic values.

There is a potential for consensus that could slowly build around putting in order the nation’s fiscal house and addressing other policy deficits.  It is possible.  (Then again I thought it was reasonable to expect the Giants to take on the New Jersey label when they made the move to the Meadowlands.)

Still, hope persists because those are serious problems that undermine our long term competitiveness.

Closer to home…there are comparatively smaller issues that are fundamental in their own way and deserve attention in the new Congress.  Wading into the policy weeds, here are some things I would like to see Congress address over the next two years:

  • A vigorous marine highway program built on the converging imperatives to reduce petroleum consumption and emissions in the transportation sector.
    • Leverage private investment dollars in new vessel construction and incentives for users of blue and brown water service.
    • Encourage State initiatives to adopt marine highways as elements in the interstate transportation system.
    • Waive the Harbor Maintenance Tax for intermodal cargo moving in the domestic trade.
  • Improving understanding of marine transportation and the contribution it makes and, even more, can make.
    • Examine what is needed to update a US maritime policy to enable the private sector to break the cycle of decline and the public sector to incorporate US flag shipping in surface transportation improvements.
    • Improve funding and human resources for the Maritime Administration, which remains a lesser modal agency in the USDOT family.
    • Renew the effort to coordinate and elevate maritime related issues among the many agencies including more buy-in by USDOT, the one department that has the most to gain.
  • Fixing Federal water resources policy, especially as regards navigation.
    • Ensure port channel maintenance funding on a par with Harbor Maintenance Tax collections.
    • Fix the too-long flawed, too-long Federal (WRDA) process of planning, funding and constructing navigation projects.
    • Distinguish between frivolous earmarking and the prosecution of fully vetted navigation projects that provide economic security in most regions of the country.

The difference between the list above and the list below is that the latter is more politically doable…if Congress and the Administration would pay it attention.   Pbea   (this entry is a revised version 1.4.11)

What Are We Doing?

In Efficiency, Infrastructure, Intermodal, Surface Transportation Policy on October 7, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Canada announced a waiver of its 25 percent import tariff on general cargo vessel, tankers, and ferries longer than 129 meters.  The decision will save shipowners $25 million per year over the next decade.

“This duty relief will accelerate the renewal of the Canadian marine fleet across the country and will help replace aging vessels with cleaner, safer and more efficient ships,” said the Chuck Strahl, Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.  “All the while, it will build on unprecedented investments our Government has made in Canada’s infrastructure and gateways by contributing to the upgrading of marine transportation links across the country.”  (Marine Log, October 4, emphasis added)

The announced tariff initiative should bring into the Great Lakes newer and more efficient competition for the existing commercial fleet flying the US flag.  Perhaps it will stimulate new shipping activity on the Lakes, which would be good.  Ships will move goods more efficiently to the benefit of energy savings and air quality.

If you have the feeling that our friends to the north are thinking and acting strategically, with an eye to the large American market, it is because they are…as they should.

Will Washington watch and learn?  Or will the dusty ol’ status quo continue to be good enough  for US?  In using this most recent example of Canadian initiative I refer to nothing so specific as Jones Act requirements but, broadly, to the insufficient attention and action to address the glaring need here, especially on the marine transportation system.

Much is known as to the general direction of the Obama Administration’s thinking on transportation policy—passenger rail, public transit, livable communities, sustainability, etc.—if not about detailed proposals.   But when it comes to goods movement little has been said.

Officials at USDOT acknowledge having been slow to focus on the subject of freight.  Early on there was the view that the heavy volume of international cargo ramping onto US highways and rails was the sort of thing not meriting Federal attention–“making imported flip-flops even cheaper” was the oft quoted line–as if that were the sum total of goods movement pressures in the country.   The thinking since last year boiled down to the notion that the freight sector will take care of itself, as Transportation Under Secretary for Policy Roy Kienitz acknowledged last week.  The private sector nature of goods movement could lead one to that view, I suppose.

However, Roy Kienitz went on to indicate that more thought is going into the subject now.  He said that a presentation by Canada’s ministry of transportation on their gateway strategy made a strong impression on him.  The strategy is a public/private initiative.  He noted it is intended to attract more North American import/export trade through their British Columbia and Atlantic ports and thus make Canadian operations significant players deep into the American Midwest market.

In the Canadian initiative he can appreciate how government can play an important role working with the freight sector.  Hopefully USDOT also understands that the American transportation sector can lose business if we just sit and watch while others press ahead.

In fairness, a good percentage of USDOT-issued TIGER grants went to rail, marine highway and other freight related projects earlier this year.  We take that as a positive sign.  But the longer it takes official Washington to actually do something structural about America’s aging infrastructure, the capacity to handle growing freight volumes, and a listless maritime sector the more ground we lose.

The examples of strategic planning and investing abound around the world including just north of here.

What are we doing down here?    Pbea

Our Friend and Partner, Mr. Truck

In Efficiency, Intermodal, Marine Highway, Surface Transportation Policy on May 12, 2010 at 12:16 am

Everyone who thinks there are too many rigs on the roads, raise your hand.  If today you used something that arrived on a truck, raise your other hand.

You can put both hands down.

Bill Graves, President of the ATA, has taken umbrage at some of the recent rhetoric in Washington.  Not much love is being heard.  Just “take trucks off the road.”

It must have hurt to read this sharpened lead in a recent Journal of Commerce cover story:  “The Obama administration is forming a national freight transportation policy that can be boiled down to one concept: Get more trucks off the roads.”

In his April 30, 2010 letter to Secretary Ray LaHood Mr. Graves points to USDOT’s favorable references to, and funding of, intermodal rail and marine highway as ways to “take trucks off the road.”  The Trucker-in-Chief disagrees.

Of course Secretary LaHood has good reason to point to rail and water.  We all know intermodal rail is more fuel efficient than moving packages downhill on a Soap Box Derby special.  (That’s the only image the RRs have yet to use in their non-stop ads.)  So much more efficient that environmental organizations have become the railroads’ best advocates here in town.

And barges can carry even more tonnage on a whiff of what is in a locomotive’s fuel tank.   Too bad far fewer people know it (although the barge industry is trying to do something about that).

There are great efficiencies to be realized in the rail and marine modes.  Moving some truck loads to rail and water routes can be both good business and policy.

But here’s a shocker.  Trucks aren’t going away.  Not unless you want to have to trek down to the docks to pick up your new flat screen.  Or to the farm to get your cabbage.

The “off the road” talk is shorthand.  Not the full story.  The policy talk doesn’t single out just trucks.  It’s just that one doesn’t hear politicos say “take cars off the road” nearly as much.  Yet that also is part of USDOT’s “livable community” message.

Under Secretary Roy Kienitz said in his March testimony about the TIGER-like National Infrastructure Investments program that it  “focuses funding on investments in whichever modes are most effective in achieving our national transportation goals…”

The policy talk is about making the most of each of the modes.  Using the modes where they are most efficient in moving the goods.  Where possible make the long haul on rail much as trucking increasingly is hopping the freight…much as trucks will become customers of freight ferries and other coastal services.  Maybe even become owners.

And notwithstanding some of the words used by short sea advocates, the marine highway effort is not about putting trucks and their drivers off the road and out of business.  It’s about giving trucking logistics another route to take and an opportunity to rationalize operations.

Bill Graves is right to complain about glib “off the road” talk.  There are better ways to describe the future role of trucks, water and rail in the national transportation system.   Pbea

Good Things to Hear — Pt. 2

In Efficiency, Infrastructure, Intermodal, Surface Transportation Policy on May 1, 2010 at 11:34 pm

This except from the opening of  “A National Intermodal Shift” by W. Cassidy and J. Boyd of the Journal of Commerce, April 5, 2010:

The Obama administration is forming a national freight transportation policy that can be boiled down to one concept: Get more trucks off the roads.

Key officials are increasingly making it clear they want to move a larger percentage of the nation’s intercity freight by rail or water, to take pressure off congested and crumbling highways and to help improve the environment.

“We want to keep goods movement on water as long as possible, and then on rail as long as possible and truck it for the last miles,” Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari said at a March 24 Senate committee hearing. [emphasis added]

In a single sentence, Porcari described what appears to be the most sweeping change in a generation in the federal government’s approach to shipping and transportation, promising an ambitious and concerted effort to redirect the way freight flows through the country’s long-standing supply networks.

The JOC cover story is intriguing to the reform minded (and unwelcome to the road-minded).  It builds on recent statements made by DOT officials in interviews and Hill hearings.  The view that is emerging from the Secretary’s office is a policy perspective that adheres less to modal stovepipes (and whether there is a pot of money devoted to a stovepipe) and more to intermodal efficiency.  It first asks if a project would provide public benefit and secondarily whether the infrastructure is in public or private hands.  Under Secretary for Policy Roy Kienitz testified at a March 17 House hearing.  He opened by outlining the principles that are guiding the Administration’s developing transportation policy.

Secretary [Ray] LaHood has decided to focus on five key strategic goals as priorities in our national transportation policy – safety, economic competitiveness, state of good repair, livability, and environmental sustainability.  Our policy on freight transportation grows out of our focus on these five key strategic goals. We want a freight policy that will allow us to target our investments on projects that are most effective in allowing us to achieve these goals.

Later in the statement Roy Kienitz said this:

Whether freight infrastructure is publicly-owned or privately-owned, it produces a mix of public and private benefits. Shippers and other customers of the freight transportation system derive private benefits from freight transportation, and the Nation as a whole derives public benefits from our freight transportation infrastructure, whether that infrastructure is publicly or privately owned. Freight that moves on more energy-efficient modes – whether the right-of-way is publicly or privately owned – enhances our energy independence and reduces adverse climate change effects. Freight that moves on a lower-cost right-of-way – whether publicly or privately owned – enhances our economic competitiveness by preserving capital for hiring and additional capital investments. The most sensible freight transportation policy will be one that directs transportation infrastructure investment to where it will have the greatest impact on our desired outcomes, regardless of whether those modes are publicly or privately owned, or whether they have their own source of trust fund revenues.

Given the opportunity to initiate a  multimodal grant program DOT is applying principles like  transportation efficiency and public benefit.  It explains over $300 million in TIGER grants going to expanding double stack rail corridor capacity and to port improvements.

These are not your typical Federally supported projects.  Then again, what we are starting to hear out of 1200 New Jersey Avenue is not your typical transportation policy.   Pbea

Good Things to Hear — Pt. 1

In Intermodal, Leadership, Surface Transportation Policy on April 22, 2010 at 11:20 am

This from Environment & Energy Daily reporter Josh Vorhees, his March 25, 2010 story shortened here:

A widely popular transportation program created by last year’s stimulus package could see new life in the next multiyear highway bill.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said yesterday that she wants to include a provision similar to the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program in the bill her panel is drafting.

The $1.5 billion grant program for innovative, long-term work is aimed at funding multimodal projects that have traditionally been difficult to fund through existing federal programs.

Boxer asked DOT officials for help in drafting the TIGER language that would be part of her highway legislation.

DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari said his agency would be willing to work with the EPW Committee and called the TIGER program key to the administration’s transportation goals, specifically efforts to shift more freight off the nation’s roads to increase mobility, and combat congestion and the fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions that accompany it.

“I think the TIGER grants point the way to the future in intermodal transportation,” Porcari said.

I wasn’t at the hearing at which the exchange took place but on the basis of this story I hear what sounds like a change of heart.   Perhaps a change of heart that took place quite some time ago but it’s one that is worth noting nonetheless.

In early 2009 when the economic stimulus package was taking form Barbra Boxer spoke to attendees of a freight stakeholder gathering.  In strong terms Boxer rejected what was the $5.5B proposal of her colleague, Patty Murray, chair of the transportation appropriations subcommittee.  (Murray’s multi-modal discretionary grant proposal eventually was enacted at a $1.5B level and later dubbed TIGER grants by Secretary Ray LaHood.)

Barbara Boxer explanation included this: Murray’s discretionary grant proposal “takes Congress out” of the decision making.  Not to worry, she elaborated, her planned surface transportation bill–MAP 21–would take care of large infrastructure projects through a projects of national and regional significance approach, much as contained in SAFETEA-LU.

Barbara Boxer’s response was disappointing to reform minded freight folk in the audience but not especially surprising.  As chair of the Environment & Public Works Committee she would both write the next surface transportation bill and have great say over what projects to include in it.

So, here’s to Barbara Boxer for seeing the value in the TIGER experience and, apparently, trusting USDOT leadership to responsibly apply legislative and rulemaking parameters in the selection of projects.   Here’s to any other legislators who had misgivings about giving the Administration the “discretion” but now see how it can work.

Perhaps Chairman Boxer also takes comfort in noting that some  of the 51 selected projects in the first round are in districts and states of key transportation players in Congress.   And that’s okay.  We hardly expect grant selections to be done in antiseptic rooms totally devoid of political considerations.   Pbea