Marine Transportation System

Archive for the ‘Surface Transportation Policy’ Category

If you only have hot dog money in your pocket maybe you just buy a hot dog…but which hot dog?

In Efficiency, Infrastructure, Surface Transportation Policy on June 2, 2011 at 9:36 am

My previous post about the surface transportation reauthorization bill—TEA for short—ended with a bit of wait-and-see optimism.  That was then.  Here is a bit of face-facts pessimism to balance it out.  It’s the kind of yin yang see-sawing that this town sets the mind to doing.  Spend more than a few minutes thinking that things will turn out fine and then…

It would be so much easier if the main actors in the TEA deliberations agreed to settle for current revenue projections.

There is real money and then there is wish money.  Real money is in the bank, or will be. Wish money is what we want Congress to produce though new transportation revenue measures.  And what is the chance of that happening when?

We can speculate, as many do, that after the 2012 election office holders will muster what it takes to vote for new revenue. But after watching these first months of the New Washington—where donkeys and elephants can’t even agree which of them has the trunk—the best we may have reason to expect of the House, Senate and White House is that they will come to some basic agreement on the overall Federal budget.  Set your sights low.  A big transportation bill won’t figure into that deal.  And a more conservative Senate after the elections may cause our sights to be five clicks lower.  Meanwhile the TEA can gets kicked farther down the road.

Barring the use of creative accounting—the sort that will not serve us well as the government feels its way to solid fiscal footing—the options for a 6-year TEA bill could be limited to $556 billion (Obama), $339 billion (Boxer) and, maybe, $230 billion (Mica). The last of those assumes only projected Highway Trust Fund receipts. Those are the choices. In which case…

Let’s here assume Congress, at best, will extend the soon to expire excise taxes to avoid a total collapse of current programs.  The choice then that policy makers have is between A) extending current law authorization i.e., SAFETEA-LU and sit tight, and B) approving a new TEA bill that fits the revenue stream.

While hardly our preferred road to travel, the “B” route may not be a bad option.  Yes,  it would shrink transportation funding on which States and locals—already strapped for cash—now rely for road maintenance, transit projects, bike paths, and other uses enabled by over one hundred programs.  But—here’s the yang part–it also could have its benefits along with the pain.

  • Get past SAFETEA-LU by enacting reform policies e.g., performance metrics, that have emerged from the various advisory panels.
  • Give States maximum flexibility to put available Federal funds to their best use.
  • Focus Federal policy on what is in the national interest (building stage coach museums vs. easing interstate chokepoints).
  • Provide added impetus to enact creative leveraging of other sources of infrastructure funding e.g., expansion of TIFIA, new infrastructure bank.
  • Force government at all levels to adjust how investment decisions are made—where the priorities are and whether projects can be delivered more efficiently. (Recent testimony from the Congressional Budget Office—“The Highway Trust Fund and Paying for Highways”—provides a helpful review of options and makes the point that “selecting projects carefully can increase the highway system’s contribution to the performance of the economy.”)
  • Cause States to re-examine their own transportation funding mechanisms and, in States like New Jersey, face up to the under capitalization of transportation trust funds.
  • Give the nation the taste of intentional under-investing in America and the significant economic consequences of that.

Chairman John Mica (R-FL), facing the facts for months now, has vowed to get a 6-year bill done this year using existing revenue. That’s the best he can do given the current House majority and leadership.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) is the top Republican on the Environment & Public Works Committee that will produce the bulk of the TEA bill.  As bullish as he has been on the need to produce a full 6-year bill (with earmarks!) he disagreed this week with his committee counterpart, Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who said she will put a full bill before her committee. Inhofe acknowledged that Congress may have to make do with current levels of revenue in a 2-year bill.

So here is a tough-love case for moving ahead today: improve the policy but face the fact that Washington, sadly, is not yet ready to go the full measure in addressing the terrible under-investment in our infrastructure.   Pbea

The Rush/No-Rush to Replace SAFETEA-LU

In Infrastructure, Politics, Surface Transportation Policy, Uncategorized on May 26, 2011 at 4:39 pm

You’d think that Congress and the Administration are proud of SAFETEA-LU.

That’s the “bridge-to-nowhere”, 6000+ earmark, strangely named measure that was signed into law in 2005 and immediately trashed on the front page of Parade (yes, Parade!), on editorial pages of all stripes, and by interested interest groups.

Freight stakeholders were grossly disappointed by the final product of a seemingly endless process born of a White House that didn’t seem to care, a Congress that seemed to care only about taking home projects, and policy makers who, for the most part, would have stumbled in answering the question: what is the underlying national policy and purpose?

In retrospect, the SAFETEA-LU experience was just what the doctor ordered.  Like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise that premiered with a ridiculously entertaining first film and epitomized wretched excess by its third iteration, the “TEA” surface transportation bill franchise was not well served in 2005.  Time for a change.

The policy commissions (#1 and #2) authorized in SAFETEA-LU to look to the future and make recommendations for the next-go-round were among a comparatively small number of “LU’s” insightful provisions.  The resulting reports and recommendations emanating from think tanks and other organizations are urgent calls for reform.  A common assessment was that SAFETEA-LU does not address the pressing needs of the nation. The case is been made in the reports:

  • The National Interest (my caps) was lost in the flood of 6000+ earmarks.
  • The Highway Trust Fund is structurally flawed and is losing revenue.
  • Capital needs of our transportation system are greater than current funding levels.
  • American competitiveness is at risk if we ignore the problems facing a growing goods movement sector.
  • Too many discrete surface transportation programs limit the ability to focus funds on greater needs.
  • Metrics–performance measures–would help judge where Federal investments can have greater effect.

And there were more.

So you’d think the policy makers would be in a hurry to fix the problem,get “LU” off the books and put in its place a new stimulus for the lagging economy.

You’d think.

It doesn’t help that the public and their electeds are tax-talk shy.  That was a main reason why the White House delayed putting together a proposal for a new bill.  It is the reason why few in Congress are willing to talk even about adjusting the existing tax in order to plug the gaping hole that is draining the trust fund tank.  Formal appeals and press releases by stakeholders calling for action pile high.

Reading the signs as to where the key actors may be headed in recommending a 6-year bill…the Administration has budgeted a $556 billion without stepping onto the thin ice of tax talk.  The Senate is looking at $339 billion, which will require around $75 billion in undefined additional revenue.  The House appears rigidly set in whatever revenue the Highway Trust Fund fairy will collect in fuel and the other excise taxes currently in effect.

Like just about everything else in this town, it’s the talk about spending–or silence about revenue–that is governing the legislative agenda.

It’s not that key actors don’t want to get a bill written and made law.  They really do.

They understand the potential for claiming and real job creation.  They want to shake off the dust of inaction.  They actually want to solve problems.

Chairman Barbara Boxer and her Republican counterpart met the press this week. Chairman John Mica frequently and convincingly voices his intent to produce a bill this year.  And the President outlined, in greater detail than the others thus far, his policy direction when issuing his FY 2012 budget.  There are other signs of what passes for progress in Washington.  Freight related bills have been introduced and await movement by the lead committees.  However a good many seasoned observers do not expect a bill will be signed into law until after the 2012 election because of tax issue avoidance.

But let’s stay optimistic.  Next we need to hear from the tax committee chairs.  Because, in more ways than we might want to admit, it’s all about the money.   Pbea

The Mineta Speech as a Starting Point

In Federal Government, MTS Policy, Surface Transportation Policy on March 30, 2011 at 11:34 pm

Former Secretary Norman Mineta provided a service in making his 2007 speech on the maritime sector (excerpts found starting here).  Since he went to the trouble, let’s use his suggestions as a starting point for an overdue discussion on rethinking and recharging US maritime policy.

Secretary Mineta called for moving maritime related functions of other agencies to the  Maritime Administration and renaming the agency according to the “Federal [ ] Administration” template used for the other modes.  There are 18 or so departments and agencies with program interest in marine transportation including USDA, NOAA, EPA and the Navy.  Reason enough to create an interagency Committee on the Marine Transportation System (CMTS).  Perhaps some functions could be consolidated in USDOT.  Others not so easily.  The navigation portion of the USACE civil works program, one that often is mentioned as a prospect, may not transfer well.  Not that the status quo is worth maintaining.  The excruciatingly-slow project evaluation and preparation process has ports pulling out their metaphorical hair.  But it’s not simply a Corps of Engineers process failing but one that Congress abets by being very unreliable in implementing the key stages of project authorization and funding.   The channel program is ripe for change.  But it is not a given that USDOT is the best place for it.  For that matter, program consolidation can cause problems as much as fix others.

The former Secretary suggests that MARAD must shift its focus to the condition of the nation’s ports and away from its long attention to “ships and crews.”  Actually that shift started during the Clinton Administration under Secretary Federico Pena.  He gave attention to port issues (including the dredging process) and MARAD has done all it can to grow its portfolio in this direction.  The agency has functioned as project manager for federally funded port projects in Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and elsewhere. (Mostly with DOD money.)  The 111th Congress authorized MARAD to manage such “port infrastructure projects”as money is made available.

I disagree with Mr. Mineta that there is too much focus on ships.  As long as there is a US flag requirement (see Jones Act), a diminishing shipyard industry and capability, and a US merchant fleet that is a shadow of its former self someone should pay it attention.  Clearly current law and policy isn’t getting the job done.  For that matter, I can’t recall a modern administration of either party that has cared much about cargo moving on US flag vessels.  (No, I won’t go back as far as Roosevelt.)

The suggestion also is made to rename the US Merchant Marine Academy and “give it our time and attention.” Reports issued during the Bush and Obama administrations, including one called “Red Sky in the Morning,” made clear that oversight and investment had been lacking at King’s Point.  So a turnaround effort continues today with Kings Point being .  But let’s face it.  Why bother making it a top notch maritime academy if the effort isn’t being made to grow the anemic maritime sector?  It would be nice if the young men and women who want a career in the merchant marine can actually find good paying jobs there.

Secretary Mineta suggested that if “ports and waterways funding is always being relegated to parts of the surface transportation bill, or the defense bill, they will remain second-class subjects…” He is saying that the sector needs, in effect, a SEA-21 much as there were TEA-21 and AIR-21—the highway and aviation authorization bills of the 1990s.  A dedicated maritime bill to advance maritime policy and related projects.  I think a maritime bill is in order, especially for addressing failings of current policy and the paucity of programs tuned to today.  But as long as Washington continues to think in terms of modal stovepipes the marine stovepipe will remain offshore and remote from the “surface” modes, system development and corridor planning where intermodal policy, transportation solutions, and major projects tend to be reserved for road and rail.

Marine transportation related provisions belong in an intermodal, multimodal surface–wet and dry surface, if you will–transportation  bill.

More on this subject to come.  Comments welcome.   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)

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

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

Raising the U.S.-Flag

In Marine Highway, MTS Policy, Surface Transportation Policy on September 7, 2010 at 11:13 pm

The lead on the June 21st American Shipper story caught the eye.  The chair of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation “says government programs aimed at helping the U.S.-flag fleet ply foreign trades have been a failure.”

“We have frankly struggled to find the policy that would truly improve and strengthen the U.S. marine transportation system…that would ensure we continue to have a robust merchant marine,” said Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) in a private session with the Federal Maritime Commission.

On July 20th Chairman Cummings held a hearing on the subject.   He repeated his concerns about the state of the American industry in international trade and told MARAD Administrator David Matsuda that something should be done.

Some of the witnesses focused their testimony on the existing U.S.-flag programs—the Maritime Security Program (MSP) and the cargo preference program.

Administrator Matsuda cited numbers that summarize the industry’s decline.  He noted that the once substantial U.S. merchant fleet “created many of the technological innovations now used by the rest of the world” then stated this depressing fact:  “However, U.S. maritime programs have not been successful in inducing or even maintaining capacity within the Nation’s domestic merchant marine. “

Chairman Cummings told Matsuda, “We…should work to formulate a meaningful U.S. maritime policy that will revitalize our merchant marine and expand the percent of U.S. trade carried in U.S. ships.”  He wanted the MARAD to return with some ideas.

Given how long it is taking USDOT to unveil long overdue surface transportation recommendations–in part due to the White House aversion to talking revenue measures–one might imagine the subcommittee chairman waiting a little while for a new administration maritime initiative.

Here’s an idea.  Suggest to Congress that the place to start revitalizing the U.S. merchant marine is here in U.S. waters.  Rather than try to formulate a new policy by which U.S.-flag shipping can be competitive in the Asian trade, we should develop an ambitious initiative for the nascent and inadequately resourced American Marine Highway program here at home.

It is good to hear Chairman Cummings raise his concerns.  Whatever can be done to invigorate the U.S.-flag sector is worth considering.  It certainly is long overdue.

I will borrow words used by former Secretary Norman Mineta in a December 2007 speech about the broader U.S. maritime sector.  “Compared to the resources and focus that we have devoted to surface transportation and aviation,” Mineta said after having left the cabinet office, “I believe we must quickly and dramatically increase our attention, our funding, and our national purpose with respect to maritime issues.”

If there is an obvious opportunity to revitalize the maritime sector–one of this country’s earliest industries–it is in the short sea market, primarily the Jones Act trade, as part of a smart energy/environment/transportation policy framework.  If there is a way to give new life to the merchant fleet and bring U.S. shipyards to produce vessels for a new, greener generation it is through an expanded domestic market and a policy that takes the maritime sector half as seriously as Washington has taken other sectors of the economy.  Many of us would settle for half.   Pbea

An Opportunity, Not Just An Optimist’s Musing

In Green Transportation, Marine Highway, Surface Transportation Policy on July 6, 2010 at 11:22 pm

I couldn’t pass up this tease question in an emailed promotion for a conference (in Marseille, if anyone has a spare ticket on the QM2 to offer a humble blogger).

Is Climate Change a challenge or an excellent incentive to facilitate the renaissance of the shipping and maritime industries?

Okay, I’ll bite.  My answer is yes.  It’s a challenge and it presents a generational opportunity that the maritime sector can’t afford to pass up.

Can climate change actions revitalize the shipping and maritime industries?  (Another question posed by the conference organizers.)   That not only is a timely question but it is the right question along with some others:

Will the American maritime sector will take proper advantage of the persistent national environmental and energy imperatives?  Will the U.S. industry only tinker around the edges of design and technology?  Or will it aggressively leverage global climate policy concerns to transform marine transport and services into  a new market opportunity?  Moreover, will the industry actually try to engage the interest of the US government in such a major transformation?

Marine transportation has some natural advantages.  It tends to avoid little things like 10-mile backups on the turnpike.  Its carrying capacity makes it the most efficient on a ton mile basis.  That efficiency can also mean some comparative environmental benefits, along with some less pleasing emissions.

But as we have seen those pluses are not sufficient to move UPS to adopt coastal water routes or to convince government to integrate marine highways into surface transportation policy.  Nor have various studies as to those benefits convinced shippers and other skeptics of Jones Act shipping.

After all, notwithstanding some attractive plans for new marine highway service, the industry has been slow to present concrete evidence that it has the will to leverage climate and energy policy drivers in order to bring about its own “renaissance.”  I reach once again for a convenient contrast: the railroads.

The Class Ones could see the time was ripe.   They have advertised the public benefits of  rail freight , they have  leveraged Federal support for the building of “green” locomotives, and they came up with a major bid to Congress,  anyone who would listen, for a 25 percent investment tax credit for infrastructure improvements to their systems.

I know none of this is simple stuff for the maritime sector.  And of course the economics are daunting to companies that operate on thin margins.  But does the industry–especially the US flag stakeholders–have a vision as to what it can be?   What the vessels can look like?  What cleaner fuels can be burned to make the environmental benefits of marine transport undeniable?   What visible improvements can be made to demonstrate that change is taking place to transform 20th century operations into 21st century wow!

As I have noted elsewhere in this blog, give the Sailor and the Secretary good reason to say “cutting edge” when talking about a vessel or a major advance in maritime goods movement.

We are handed an opportunity when Congress debates climate action measures and major reforms to energy policy.  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