Marine Transportation System

Archive for the ‘Leadership’ Category

WRDA: Commonsense Earmarking

In Federal Government, Infrastructure, Leadership, Politics, Water Resources on December 20, 2010 at 8:01 pm

A restaurant is moving into our nearby Del Ray Alexandria neighborhood (and not nearly soon enough, I might add).  It is unabashedly called Pork Barrel BBQ.

The name–chosen by a  couple of former Senate staffers now opening their first restaurant–has plenty of context in the Washington area where “pork barrel” is a mud that gets slung by persons of all partisan and ideological stripes  deservedly or not.  The observation goes…”One man’s pork barrel is another man’s needed project” (or favorite eatery, as the case may be).

But let’s reject the term for such time as it takes to rationally debate the issue of earmarking.

The previous post on this blog discusses how a broad brush is being used in the “earmark” debate in Congress where schizophrenia has been in great evidence as party members opine on the subject of how earmarking should be treated by House and Senate rules starting next year.

You can tell that rhetoric and ideology are getting their way when House GOP leadership is telling the rank and file to cut their griping and just deal with it.  It being a prohibition on all earmarking (writ broad).

The thinking person should have problems with that.  Putting aside an obvious constitutional argument, let’s consider how not all project types are alike.  And to keep this short, let’s stipulate that while some earmarks are  little more than grand ideas others have been subjected to considerable analysis.  Put water resource projects in the latter category.

Federal water projects go back to 1824 when Congress told the US Army Corps of Engineers to make rivers safe for navigation.  Today the Corps’ civil works mission includes navigation (the Federal system of coastal and inland channels), protection against floods and shore erosion, and other project types.  Today projects are put through  an extensive and expensive series of wringers: environmental, engineering and economic analysis, EISs, White House sign-offs, reports to Congress, contracts between local project sponsors and the Federal government (covering sharing of costs, provision of lands, etc.), congressional authorization of projects that satisfy the various tests (see WRDA), and  subsequent funding decisions by Congress.  Oh, and there’s the public input opportunities along the way as well as more recent provisions for “peer” review of Corps feasibility studies.

As Amy Larson of the National Waterways Conference put it in her letter to Republican leaders, “water resources projects are scrutinized, arguably, to a greater extent than any other capital investment program in the government…”

In his letter of November 29, 2010, Kurt Nagle of the American Association of Port Authorities told the leaders “it is vital to find a solution that provides a process that enables investments in needed improvements in transportation infrastructure to move forward in a non-earmark environment, especially new-start construction projects.”

Yes, you are bound to find “pork” by someone’s definition even among scrutinized water resources projects but that can be managed through oversight by appropriators.  But if the leadership is not taking the time to understand differences among project types, the high hurdles that navigation projects must overcome to qualify for authorization and funding, or the simple fact that most of the nation’s navigation system consists of FEDERAL channels that Congress is obliged to maintain and improve in the national interest, then they appear to be engaging in little more than indiscriminate mud slinging.   Pbea

 

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Good Luck, Mr. Chairman.

In Infrastructure, Leadership, MTS Policy, Politics, Surface Transportation Policy on November 17, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Capitol Hill institution is a phrase that some incoming freshmen Members may not appreciate or find at all useful.  After all, some of them are arriving with the intent to de-institutionalize the place.

Democrat Jim Oberstar was de-institutionalized on Election Day.  He lost his re-election bid as did some other senior congressmen, including two other committee chairs.  Gene Taylor (D-MS) of the Seapower Subcommittee was one.

The chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee is both an institution and a creature of one, where he spent 36 years representing his Minnesota district.  He started on Capitol Hill in the early 1960s as a staffer for an earlier iteration of that committee.  His remarks the other day to reporters (as reported by Sarah Abruzzese of E&E) reflect a perspective born in another time that looks out of place in the litmus-test politics of today.

“I think you will see coming in a lack of institutional understanding and also it appears a lack of willingness to follow seasoned leaders,” Oberstar said.

That’s speculation on his part but not without cause.  A real question giving those of us here pause is how well the 112th Congress will function and, therefore, govern.  Many of us end the 111th Congress with doubtful expectations for the next one.  (Paul Page of the Journal of Commerce wonders about the prospects for governing also.)

Not to suggest it is the center of the policy universe but in the transportation sector there is much at stake.  Here are three instances.  Long pending aviation program and policy legislation has been immobilized and needs to reach the President’s desk.  Likewise, the significant surface transportation “reauthorization” legislation—to include reforms that hopefully will make up for the excesses and diversions of SAFETEA-LU—is overdue and guaranteed to take at least another year to address, if we are so lucky.  Whether this next “TEA” bill will contain the multi-modal sensibility, including marine elements, that many of us look for, is one of the consequential unknowns.  And speaking about bills that are rarely on time, how will the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works program–the basis for navigation infrastructure and commerce since the nation’s founding days–be made to function well in the next decades if Congress does not take up water resource (WRDA) legislsation?

There are bigger fish to fry in this town, of course – the government’s off-balance fiscal policy, the economy, and our international presence. But let’s consider the prospects on a smaller and more easily understood scale of those, nonetheless significant, challenges that face the transportation and public works panels of the House and Senate.  There is much to do in part because not much has been done over the years to address the nation’s infrastructure deficit or to focus on neglected sectors like the U.S. maritime.   As for the incoming class, Jim Oberstar’s conjecture is reasonable.

Among the members-elect, “there is little appetite for or appreciation of the broader policy questions that the nation faces with transportation,” he said — emphasizing that this was his opinion from reading about election outcomes across the country.

***

[Oberstar] expressed admiration for Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who served as the committee’s ranking member and is now almost certain to take over as chairman. “Mr. Mica and I developed over these four years a very close working relationship,” Oberstar said. “He and I were both quick to say we have disagreements on policy issues, but we found a way to mitigate those differences.”Oberstar listed multiple bills that the two parties were able to come to an agreement on and shepherd out of the committee, including a Water Resources and Development Act that successfully overcame a presidential veto, an Amtrak bill that the president signed, an aviation authorization bill (twice), and a Coast Guard authorization bill.

***

“I would have brought to the new Congress that history of cooperation and seeing and trusting, that’s even more important, trusting my partner in this process,” Oberstar said. “Going forward, you’ll have to rebuild all those personal relationships and committee structural relationships. And that will take time and will take something out of the process.”

How true.  While still holding out hope for what is to come, we will miss Jim Oberstar, the institution and that diminishing breed.   Good luck, Chairman Mica.   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

Toward Developing MTS Related Policy

In Federal Government, Leadership, MTS Policy, Surface Transportation Policy on February 15, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Sitting the USDOT leadership in front of an audience has become a bit of a tradition each January.   Most of the brass, sans Secretary LaHood, appeared en panel at the recent TRB annual convention.  The policy and modal chiefs offered brief overviews as to what is on their plates.  Here are notes from two that have particular relevance to MTS related policy.

Under Secretary for Policy Roy Kienitz covered the big item — the next surface transportation authorization bill.   This year the Secretary’s office will pull together recommendations for the Obama White House to consider in preparing a package for Congress.

Roy stated the vision:  A renewed sense of strong federal leadership in transportation centered on meeting national needs.

He defined national needs: safety, state of good repair, economic competitiveness, livability, and environ sustainability.

The department’s priorities: organizing programs around those needs and recommending ideas to congress.

The challenges he described:  getting Americans excited about the vision and finding a politically acceptable way to pay for it.

David Matsuda, the Maritime Administration’s acting Administrator, is awaiting Senate confirmation.  He offered his take on what is what is driving the need to develop a vision for the marine transportation system as it applies to nation’s economic competitiveness.

The Panama Canal widening has the potential to significantly alter land and water routes.  Add to that potential changes relating to the use of the Suez, an Artic route, etc.    In short, we’re facing a whole new freight delivery market.

The Federal government must play an active role such as help “coordinate” investments in port access and intermodal connectors.  Few studies and data are available.  MARAD is commissioning a study to fully explore the impacts of a widened canal on our transportation system.

David said the study outcome is expected to shape national policies and help assess the capacity of channels, connections, etc.  He spoke of the need to factor in the capacity of port terminals and landside connections, the ingenuity of port authorities and terminal operators, and the competitive measures Canada and Mexico ports will take.  To understand how fuel prices affect freight economics.   And to identify marine highways to relieve surface congestion and move goods in a more energy efficient manner on the water.

There’s work to be done at the Department of Transportation.  And plenty reason for the freight community to plug into it.   Pbea

The Next Maritime Administrator

In Federal Government, Leadership on January 27, 2010 at 11:50 pm

David Matsuda –the President’s pick to serve as Maritime Administrator–is ready to serve.

He returned to familiar turf this week when he appeared at his nomination hearing.  He worked for the same committee that will be voting on his nomination.  His work in the Senate had to do with railroads, ports, transit, trucking and aviation.  He worked for a senator whose state’s second largest employment sector is logistics and which is host to the New York Harbor and Delaware River gateways.

Since mid 2009 David Matsuda has been running the Maritime Administration as the top political appointee at the modal agency.  He has the confidence of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood who first knew him as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy.

Importantly for MARAD–and for the marine transportation system–he has knowledge and experience to help shape a new transportation policy for the administration to recommend to Congress.  That transportation policy has to include, for the first time, a national freight policy.  And by rights it should put the marine transportation system squarely in that policy.

David Matsuda’s prepared statement for the hearing was brief and straightforward.  He reminded the committee that the “impacts of our nation’s maritime industry are not limited to coastal states.”

“Items brought in by ship make their way to store shelves and factory lines throughout the nation. Some raw materials we mine, goods we produce, and agricultural products we grow for export leave through our seaports or travel down rivers or across great lakes to distant markets.  In all, 36 states have a maritime port—whether it’s on a river, lake, gulf, or ocean. Merchant mariners live in just about every state in the Union, and midshipmen nominated by you and your colleagues to study at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy can claim home to all but one state. Some states have shipyards or marine manufacturers which can be the largest sources of jobs in an entire community or region.”

He noted acknowledged the challenges.

“Today’s industry is struggling with many tough challenges: a lagging economy, climate change, the threats of invasive species, piracy and other security issues, a greatly expanded Panama Canal opening in 2014, and an aging workforce, to name a few.”

One of the challenges facing the next Administrator is to make something of the marine highway program.  It is just getting started.  With no assurance of a reliable funding stream for the program, MARAD–hopefully with strong support from the Secretary’s office–will have to make the most of its modest resources to develop a credible and creative program that will be central to MARAD’s mission for many years to come.

“I feel my experience working within the federal government, and especially working in the Senate, has allowed me a broad understanding of how these challenges can be approached successfully: by working with all stakeholders in good faith and with transparency in decision-making.”

We wish him well.    Pbea

Vision Ingredients (Part 1)

In Federal Government, Leadership, Surface Transportation Policy on November 28, 2009 at 8:19 pm

Thinking of George H. W. Bush can conger up a few unfortunate (for him), lasting images. For me it’s the former president’s food judgments (pork rinds good/broccoli bad), his unfamiliarity with the price of  milk, and Dana Carvey’s exaggerated but dead-on impersonation.  Then there was, “oh, the vision thing.”  It sounded like he thought it a useless factor in governing–perhaps more so than he may have intended–but it stuck.

As a practical matter civil servants and political appointees often aren’t given the time to engage in “visioning”. Sometimes when it is done it can amount to little more than a facilitated exercise.  But what may seem like a luxury, or a waste, arguably is essential for a new administration and even newly sworn congressional leadership.

At USDOT some part of a vision is in place, though I don’t know how much is the result of planning or predisposition.

The two elements of an Obama transportation vision that I can identify are high speed passenger rail and livable communities.  The first is courtesy of President Obama himself.  In an out-of-the-blue moment earlier this year the White House said the economic stimulus package being written in Congress must include billions to start a high speed rail program.  (It was one of a few Obama “musts” in a measure that was mostly dismissed by Republicans as a “Pelosi” bill.)   The rail piece was the president’s vision, and an inspired one to be sure.

The second quickly became a regularly voiced theme by Secretary Ray LaHood and his policy staff.  It suits an administration that is oriented toward energy conservation, the urban environment and, not to be forgotten, the voting pedestrian/commuter.  Does it qualify as vision?  I think so.  It’s more than a policy view because a livable community objective could transform urban and town landscapes and it entails a broad range of policy solutions.

Meanwhile a more complete administration surface transportation policy is still in the cooker.  Congressional committees are wondering what and when policy recommendations for a successor to SAFETEA-LU will emerge from USDOT headquarters.  Perhaps no sooner than mid 2010.

Vision and policy are not synonymous.  One can have a new vision, and implementing policy, for passenger rail while maintaining a decades-old freight policy.  Somehow that doesn’t sound like this administration.

It’s one thing for the recent Bush administration and Secretary Mary Peters to articulate a scant administration view  about transportation that amounted to little more than less Federal government, more State responsibility, and greater private sector financing and management.  It made for a transportation policy only a Cato could appreciate.

But we might reasonably expect more from Messrs Obama and LaHood given the administration’s expansive environmental and energy view.  Transportation’s role in addressing those issues is significant and goes beyond putting passengers on trains and encouraging transit use and bicycling.

So here’s the question: What is the total vision that will steer administration action and guidance to congress over the next three, maybe seven, years?  Will it be more than passenger rail and livable communities?    Pbea

A Million Reasons

In Leadership, Surface Transportation Policy on September 21, 2009 at 12:26 pm

TollBanana

“Funding is the key,” said former DOT Secretary Norman Mineta.  He should know.

Mineta spoke to an estimable eighty invited to UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs to discuss how significant reform in surface transportation policy might be achieved.  He told them that funding is the prerequisite for the kind of major investment measure that all agreed is needed.

Noting the particular challenge, Mineta recalled how he  brought to the Bush (43) White House a proposal to add two cents to the Federal fuel tax.  The intent was to elevate road and transit program funding to level closer to actual system need.  The Commander-in-Chief said no.

Pop Quiz:

  1. On what bill did George W. Bush first exercise his power of the veto?  (Softball.)
  2. Aside from a $8 Bn game-changing plan to jump-start high-speed passenger rail, which president ruled out any immediate action on a major transportation infrastructure program because he (that’s a hint) was not inclined toward a tax hike or other revenue measure? (But why just pick on presidents?)
  3. Is there a snowball’s chance in Haiti that Congress will pass the next full-fledged TEA bill anytime soon?

(Answers: SAFETEA-LU, Obama, Not likely.)

It’s not a stretch to suggest that it may take years for official Washington to approve a costly multi-year surface transportation bill.  Certainly one that includes substantial reform  (such as sustainable transportation and livable communities), new attention to freight gateways and corridors, and overall higher levels of capital investment in our declining public works.  Hundreds of billions are needed over and above what is required to maintain what we already have.  And a declining highway trust fund makes even maintaining the status quo a pressing challenge.

Josh Vorhees of Energy & Environment News wrote a good story carried by the NYT.  The conferees at UVA know the timidity of the Electeds when it comes to approving new revenue increments to support this or that.  When it comes to the partisan battlefield there is no distinguishing a user fee from a tax.

Some time ago, when a toll increase was being contemplated by staff of  a public authority, the subject was referred to as “The Banana. ”  The T-word was not uttered in internal discussions–lest others outside the agency get wind of it before the numbers were fully crunched and the rationale fully developed.  “The Banana” was a calculated, albeit humorous, way to manage in the hyper-sensitive political world.

A some point–much sooner than later–the million reasons why a tax payer or system user should not be charged must be faced by our Electeds.  At some point the fact will sink in that America’s competitiveness is declining as other nations  are  using this lousy global recession as reason to engage in major infrastructure improvements.

Mort Downey recounted last week at a freight-related event how over the years Washington has managed to extend or raise the vehicle fuel tax even when the economy was in distress.  Somehow we survived.   Pbea

A Decent Man and Industry Leader

In Leadership on September 14, 2009 at 1:03 pm
Bill DeCota  (source: www.bigapplegreeter.org)

Bill DeCota (source: http://www.bigapplegreeter.org)

Bill DeCota was not someone you would have met in the MTS world.  He didn’t know ships, but he appreciated that there could be a role for marine transportation at his facilities.  He didn’t know freight rail, but he knew that rail is an essential component in intermodal transportation.  He may have never set foot on a container terminal, but he understood the importance of efficient goods movement.

Bill DeCota knew airports and aviation.

On September 11th, as his colleagues at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey were re-living the tragedy of eight years before, Bill passed away at age 51.

For nearly ten years Bill DeCota headed the agency’s Aviation Department.  LaGuardia, Newark, Kennedy, Teterboro, and now Stewart.  He joined the Port Authority in 1982 as a financial analyst and well before his untimely death he had earned the respect of his staff and industry leaders.

Like other highly competent persons Bill could have left public service for greater financial reward in the private sector.  Instead he close to work to improve the country’s busiest and highly complex passenger and freight airport system in the high-pressure, floodlit New York metro region.  The region and his employer were prime beneficiaries of his talent.  Anyone who didn’t fully appreciate that fact when he was alive surely will come understand it in his absence.

He had impressive intellectual capacity, lived his work 24/7, had great integrity, demanded no less of himself as he did  of his staff.  He was a national leader  in the industry.  He probably was without peer in his command of the  statistical and financial minutiae.  He was a man of good humor and enjoyed his own, frequent quips.  And as an added gift Bill was a genuinely good guy.  He was friend and colleague to people, myself included, regardless of rank.  Patty Clark of his staff said of Bill: “He had as much concern for the busboy at his dinner, as he did for his long term friends.  The caring and concern which were the hallmark of his life, he eschewed when directed at himself.”

It is the transportation world’s loss that he is gone.   Pbea