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Kindest and Other Trump Cuts

In Congress, Energy/Environ, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Ports, Security, Transportation Policy on March 20, 2017 at 11:44 am

President Donald Trump’s 62-page “skinny” budget proposal — he calls it his budget “blueprint” — is devastatingly consequential for most departments and agencies. (See my prior post.) It tells you, for example, that the State Department will take a 28 percent hit should Congress concur in this first Trump Administration budget request, but it is short on how the programs at State and most other departments will be affected. For that we will have to wait a few more months until the main budget document is to be released — or leaks emerge — and the various budget experts do their analysis.

Will Congress adopt the president’s idea of winners and losers? Maybe not. His proposal is hardly a strictly partisan expression to which all Republicans will faithfully adhere, even if it is in the direction that they want to support. Moreover, as much as he wants to see a big defense build-up, dealer Donald Trump’s budget has to be seen as his opening gambit in an appropriations process that is only just getting started. Meanwhile, the budget document and agency press releases provide some information. Here is what we know.

Corps of Engineers
The USACE civil works program proposed number of $5 billion is $1 billion less than current year funding — a 16.3 percent reduction — but, historically, that’s not so bad. That is actually higher than the Obama FY17 budget. Every White House low-balls the Corps budget. The annual fiscal dance is for the president to bid low because he knows Congress will respond high. There is no more detail to report at this point. If there is a caution here it is that the Corps budget can’t be viewed in isolation from the total Federal budget. This clearly is not a normal year. If the Defense Department and Homeland Security are going to benefit in the substantial way that the White House proposes, the competition will be for your program to lose less than the others. If Congress were to provide the civil works program with more than $5 billion, as it has in recent years, that might come from other parts of the budget that are already proposed for stiff reductions.

Transportation
The budget blueprint shows a $2.4 billion reduction in spending over current year levels — a cut of 13 percent — and contains enough detail to identify some major programs targeted for elimination. Not surprisingly, the $500 million, multimodal TIGER grant program is prominent in that category. The White House would remove this most reliable source of funding for non-navigation port projects, including inside-the-gate improvements. (About $51 million was awarded to six port-related projects in FY2016.) TIGER, started in 2009, has survived past Republican efforts to eliminate funding but it has had strong support from Democrats and even Republicans. The White House is not alone in suggesting that TIGER is to some extent duplicated by the FASTLANE grants program that was created in the FAST Act and is dedicated to freight projects. (The Trump budget retains FASTLANE.) However, that part of the five-year FASTLANE program that most interests ports is the multimodal portion that is not limited to highway projects. Much of the total $500 million multimodal authorization was allocated in just the first year of the $900 million annually authorized spending for FASTLANE. There is no such modal limitation in TIGER. We will see if appropriators allow TIGER to end.

The DOT budget also would also eliminate funding for long-distance Amtrak operations, start down the path to private sector management of the air traffic control system, end the Essential Air Service program that is a major benefit for rural states, and close out a transit capital grant program.

Secretary Elaine Chao issued a statement on the budget blueprint announcement. It includes an oddly incongruent description of a national budget that the OMB itself acknowledges does not address deficit reduction. It also references an Administration talking point that, while proposing to reduce spending on transportation infrastructure, the budget is consistent with whatever will be the promised trillion dollar infrastructure initiative. The Secretary’s statement explains that the “strategy behind” the DOT capital spending cuts “is to move money out” of existing programs and into “more efficient programs” in the still undefined Trump initiative. We will have to see how that manages to end up being a net plus for transportation projects. From Chao’s statement:

This is a strategic document that looks to the future, and is designed to send a clear message on deficit reduction. For DOT, it addresses the department’s discretionary programs, which make up about one-quarter of the Department’s total resources. These proposed savings are largely geared towards future program investments, so they will not have an immediate direct impact on our DOT colleagues. This is just the beginning of the budget process, not the end. We will see the more complete picture when OMB releases its final FY 2018 budget in May, and as the President’s infrastructure initiative takes shape. In fact, OMB Director Mulvaney noted yesterday that the strategy behind the savings in the DOT budget is to move money out of existing, inefficient programs and hold these funds for more efficient programs that will be included in the infrastructure package under development.

E&E News reported that OMB Director “Mick Mulvaney said the cuts to federal funds for transit and roads would be balanced by an infrastructure package coming to Congress in the fall. The grants proposed for elimination in yesterday’s spending wish list were targeted “in anticipation” of a more fleshed-out White House plan…”

The lead Democrat on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Peter DeFazio (D-OR), was not complimentary, and not without irony, in commenting on the Trump planned cuts for USDOT.

The skinny budget exposes that as a big, fat lie. These are real investments. They could be putting people to work this summer. It’s infinitely stupid for Republicans who have just taken over everything to give up TIGER grants, which are at the discretion of the Republican Secretary of Transportation, and I’m sure they’ll use them much more politically than the dunces at the Obama administration did. [E&E News]

Homeland Security
DHS is proposed to get 6.8 percent more in the coming year to benefit the construction of a southern border wall and heightened enforcement of US immigration law through technological and human resources. Significant additions of personnel — 500 more in Customs & Border Patrol (CBP)  and 1,000 more for Immigration Control & Enforcement (ICE), plus support staff — also are intended to strengthen border security. Another $1.5 billion is slated for cybersecurity activity to protect Federal networks and critical infrastructure.

The budget proposes to cut State and Local security grants by $667 million. Earlier reports suggested a probable 40 percent reduction in the Port Security Grant Program but analysis by the Democrats of the House Appropriations Committee concludes that the budget means a 25 percent reduction in the program, from $100 million to $75 million.

According to prior releases of information the budget includes a cut in the Coast Guard, but that is not highlighted in the materials released by the White House and DHS yesterday. Instead, the DHS release simply says that the budget “sustains current funding levels [for the Coast Guard]…which allows for the continuation of day-to-day operations and investments in the Acquisition, Construction, & Improvements account.”

The budget document also states that the Transportation Security Administration will experience the elimination and reduction of “unauthorized and underperforming programs.” Details presumably to follow.

Environmental Protection
Of all the Federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency is targeted by the Trump Administration for the deepest cut — a 31 percent spending reduction. The budget statement offers an ironic compliment (kindest cut?) in suggesting that the “budget for EPA reflects the success of environmental protection efforts…” as if to say, “job well done.” The EPA section appears to be the only one of the two-page department and agency sections that specifically notes the anticipated reduction in personnel — “3,200 fewer positions.”

The proposed budget provides “robust funding for critical drinking and wastewater infrastructure” that is comparable to current levels. It ends funding for Obama’s “Clean Power Plan, international climate programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts…” It reduces the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance budget, reduces Categorical Grants funding, and “eliminates more than 50 EPA programs that are “lower priority,” “poorly performing,” and “duplicative.”

The budget document proposal to end funding for multi-state regional efforts such as restoring Chesapeake Bay. The proposal to end funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative  is no partisan matter. Nine senators led by Rob Portman (R-OH) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) sent a letter to the White House expressing their concerns, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) joined them in opposing the cuts.  Pbea

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Making a Last, Lasting Maritime Policy Impression

In Congress, Federal Government, Legislation, MTS Policy, Ports, Transportation Policy on September 21, 2016 at 11:37 am

An earlier version of this appeared in the Deep Water Notes newsletter of the Connecticut Maritime Coalition.

Summer is coming to a close. The same might be said of the Obama Administration and the 114th Congress, both timing out at or soon after the end of the year. And, as of this writing, the 2016 presidential campaign ends in under 50 days. All of which means we are entering a familiar, but critical period in governing.

It is decision time for all. They ask themselves — What can we get done in the time remaining? What will be the lasting impression and effect of this congress, this presidency, this election?

I won’t try to speculate on the last of those. Besides, nary a whisper has been heard on the stump about the port/maritime sector. (Surprised? Not at all.) Instead, here are some thoughts on two matters pending and percolating in the two branches of government.

National Maritime Transportation Strategy.    From the start, some people scoffed at the idea of preparing such a document. The Maritime Administrator was sincere when he started a public thought-process in January 2014. It was to culminate, a year later, in a document that might give direction to US activity and, in the process, highlight policy areas that could use attention and support from the maritime community and policy makers. Not surprising, there was plenty of skepticism, doubting that higher-ups in the department and in the White House would care when the draft came their way and they picked up their red pencils.

For that matter, some organizations in the maritime sector itself were less than enthusiastic about assembling a national strategy document for reasons that 1) they alone would have to explain, and 2) frustrated the stakeholder discussion and drafting efforts at MARAD.

It doesn’t help if members of your core constituency are afraid of what might result or are so jaded that they don’t want to bother.

Today, the still unpublished document is nearing the end of the draft process. That is a hopeful characterization for a paper that has spent the last ten months in “interagency review” garnering three hundred or so comments, to which MARAD is responding, and then to go through the wringer again for one last review. With around 20 agencies and departments having some interest – whether direct or remote — in ports and maritime transportation, one imagines 20 red pencils worn to the nub.

In gestation for over two years, having gone through wringers, reviews, and collecting dust in offices where US maritime policy is little considered, it is anyone’s guess as to the document’s ultimate value for the port/maritime sector. The most that we, and Administrator Paul “Chip” Jaenichen, can hope for is that the final draft will be released for comment before the Administration loses its license to operate.

Put any skepticism aside. It would be useful to have a “maritime strategy” document circulating among the transition teams and the policy planners and makers of the executive and legislative branches starting in 2017.

If anything it could spark attention to a subject area that has been easily ignored and misunderstood at higher levels of government for far longer than the last eight years. Officials and their staff could benefit by reading about the need for investing in ports, preparing the transportation system for the effects of larger ships, adapting to and adopting new technology, growing the domestic maritime service, preparing the next skilled workforce, and improving the port/maritime environment.

Those are consequential topics. That is what the document is about.

Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (WRDA 2016).   It is possible that Congress will complete action on a WRDA bill. The Senate last week passed its version (S.2848). On the other side of the Hill, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said the House version (H.R.5303) will have to wait until after the election when the legislators will reconvene for a lame duck session.

That is a disappointing delay for WRDA advocates but we can take some comfort in hearing both McCarthy and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) mention WRDA 2016 as something to get done this year.  Still, with no more than a week of legislative days left before the election break, and facing an unspecific period for what can be an unpredictable lame duck session, most anything can get in the way of bill completion.

Committee leaders want to demonstrate that they can send a WRDA bill to the White House just two years after the 2014 act, and in the process provide some biennial predictability to authorizing water resource projects like navigation and flood control improvements.

The port/maritime sector has a lot at stake in this bill, which would authorize the Corps of Engineers to undertake Portsmouth, Charleston, Ft. Lauderdale, and Brownsville channel improvement projects. Those ports have been waiting for this key step to be taken by Congress. If the bill dies this year, it could be another two years before the next one.

The House and Senate versions of WRDA 2016 contain a large number of policy provisions that would improve a burdensome Corps’ civil works process, strengthen the leverage of ports in the study and implementation phases of Federal navigation projects, and, eventually, improve channel maintenance funding.

The last and most consequential of those is a provision in the House bill that would lead to full use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and its user-paid Harbor Maintenance Tax revenues. It would enable something like direct funding of the Corps for maintenance work. For reasons explained by arcane congressional budget rules, the legislation would make that change effective eleven years hence.

Would it be worth the wait?

Put it this way: Ports have waited since 1986, when the HMT and HMTF were created, for maintenance of navigation infrastructure to be funded at needed levels, and for the trust fund to be taken “off-budget” and protected from being used to balance against deficit spending in the larger Federal budget.

Yes, it would be worth the wait.   Pbea

DPW Redux?

In Congress, Politics, Ports, Transportation Policy on May 12, 2016 at 10:50 pm

The trade press is reporting that a majority of shares of Ports America may be acquired by a corporation in Turkey, Yilport Holding Inc. The Istanbul-based corporation is part of a multi-industry holding company, its owner also a major investor in the French CMA CGM container shipping line, acknowledged the talks are occurring. Taking control of a major US terminal organization with around 40 operations around the country, would be a big move as compared to the UAE-based Gulftainer’s purchase of a small container terminal at Port Canaveral a few years back.

A better, if not perfect, analogy of a Mideast-based business making a move on a US MTO/stevedore would be the ill-fated move by DP World in 2006 to take over P&O Ports. At a time when American port security in a post-2001 world was still a very active subject in Washington the credible Dubai Ports World ran afoul of Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and others of both parties in Congress, including then-Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY). Claims were made that it was a potential foot-in-the-door by a state-owned organization from a region that sponsored terrorism. The rhetoric was hot. The subject was raw meat for never-too-tired-to-talk radio.

P&O Ports had approved the acquisition and the transaction involving port leases required Federal government review and clearance by Treasury’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). Despite those approvals, and the strong support of the George W. Bush White House, the issue became such a political firestorm — involving an industry little understood in Congress, it should be noted — that in the end DP World withdrew, selling P&O Ports’ American operations to AIG. (As it happens, those terminals eventually came under the Ports America name.)

A second, unfortunate casualty of the blowup was the Bush administration’s candidate to be Maritime Administrator. The respected David Sanborn had the doubly bad luck of 1) having his nomination considered in the Senate in this same time frame and 2) being an operations executive of — yes, that’s right — DP World.

So is this another potential “DP World” should Yilport and Ports America do a deal? Maybe not. Turkey is a member of NATO and a US ally, if not the best kind of ally, and more time has passed since that anxiety-filled first decade. But the situation does invite a recollection of a particularly crazy time here when the marine terminal industry and the international nature of the maritime sector were under the glaring, if not illuminating, lights of official US.

What is not especially evident is whether all that attention then led to a greater understanding of the industry today.

Measuring Port Performance

In Efficiency, Federal Government, Legislation, MTS Policy, Port Performance, Ports, Transportation Policy on January 26, 2016 at 4:35 pm

The issue of measuring port performance was a contentious one over the last half of 2015. Now that there is such as thing in law as the Port Performance Freight Statistics Program the action has shifted to what to do about it. USDOT — really the Bureau of Transportation Statistics — is tasked with implementing the new law that requires the collection of data to express throughput and capacity in ports. BTS is expected to anonymize the competitively sensitive data for public consumption and report annually to Congress.

Implementation will prove no less a contentious matter, at least among the interests who were most active as the bill was being debated and now hope to inform BTS decisions. Nor does it promise to be a simple task for the agency.

Helpful to BTS is that some of the original bill requirements as to specific metrics and stepped up data collection during collective bargaining was left on the legislative cutting room floor. (The Port Performance Act, S.1298, as reported from committee listed eight metrics that must be used — such as average container lifts per hour and average cargo dwell time — and then added another five data types to be reported monthly to Congress around the time of port labor contract negotiations.)

The final version frees BTS to assemble a program that, perhaps, a transportation statistical agency might consider valid for assessing both port condition and performance, both being information that the department wants to have on the total freight system. Port related metrics are a segment of supply chain data that BTS previously said it lacked.

Not so helpful to BTS is that the mandate to build a new program was not accompanied by money to pay for the effort. Indeed, the agency’s authorized annual budget limit for the next five years is $26 million as set by Congress in the FAST Act. That is less than the agency has been given in past year appropriations and less than the $29 million requested by the Administration. (The American Statistical Association provides this perspective: “$26 million is the same level of the BTS budget in FY05, which means BTS will see a 30% decline in purchasing power from FY05 to FY20 due to inflation.”)

The port performance program is not a simple matter to stand up. That was made patently clear recently when BTS held a session on the subject at the TRB Annual Meeting. The agency took advantage of the fact that Washington was temporarily populated with scads of transportation economists, planners, engineers, industry representatives, consultants and other data hounds. At this session labeled “Port Data Users Forum” Rolf Schmitt, Deputy Director of BTS, sat on the dais making notes on his laptop as he heard a variety of comments and issues from persons at the standing mic. Specific questions were posed to get responses from the 70 or so folk in the room.

  1. What are the different port types from which data would need to be drawn?
  2. How could they be ranked (given that the law calls for data from the top 25 ports as measured by TEUs, tonnage and dry bulk cargo but ranking would not be a simple as that might seem)?
  3. What are some widely accepted and used types of port statistics?
  4. What is the best way to measure performance to determine efficiency and productivity?

Dan Smith of The Tioga Group that has studied terminal productivity, Bruce Lambert of the Institute for Trade and Transportation Studies, Anne Aylward of USDOT’s Volpe Center and former Boston port  director, Paul Bingham of the Economic Development Research Group, and Anne Kappel of the World Shipping Council were among the knowledgeable persons who offered suggestions and cautions. The comments collected gave Schmitt plenty to chew on.

The folks at BTS were given some formal help by Congress. The new PPFSP (it being Washington we have to mine initials to mysteriously label programs) includes the formation of a temporary “working group” of Federal agency, stakeholder and other sector representatives to assist BTS in determining what metrics to use in data collection and how to go about getting the data. Those stakeholders and some other likely working group members were among the persons (I among them) who lobbied and competed for preferred legislative language. One might expect those opposing views to surface again in some form during the working group discussions.

In his opening comments Rolf Schmitt noted that while the legislation uses the “working group” phraseology — perhaps an attempt by bill writers to avoid mandating formation of a formal advisory committee under the Federal Advisory Committee Act — it will be a Federal Advisory Committee in every sense of the word. That means a formal process starting with a notice in the Federal Register, the writing of a charter, and a host of other administrative requirements. A rulemaking process also is necessary to complete the task of establishing the data collection program. Schmitt noted that Federal law says that agencies such as his must minimize the burden put on those affected by such rules. Always good to know.

There was no lengthy list of suggested metrics offered that evening by those at the microphone in response to the question that held the most interest. Cargo dwell time and rail turn times were mentioned and indicated as among data that the marine terminal would keep. Since many terminals are privately operated, port authorities are not in possession of that data and, as one person noted, that is especially true in ports where private terminals are not tenants of a port authority.

Truck turn times were also mentioned but, as another person noted, collecting turn times that include waiting outside the gate will require capital investments in measuring equipment. The Port of Oakland is experimenting with Bluetooth technology. On the previous day Reade Kidd, Home Depot’s Director of International Logistics, offered the opinion of probably most cargo interests that metrics should reflect berth, rail, yard and gate operations.

When the hour was up, Rolf Schmitt left the convention center, no doubt thinking he had more questions and problems to solve on leaving than when he arrived.  Pbea

Word Searching the State of the Union

In Congress, Leadership, President, Transportation Policy on January 23, 2016 at 1:18 pm

President Obama’s annual State of the Union Address was an uneventful one for folks in the port and transportation business. That word, transportation, came up just once; port nary once. (It’s actually a game here in town to listen to see if a favorite topic is mentioned in the speech.  A colleague of mine downs a shot whenever he hears a key word uttered by the Chief Executive at the podium.

Interest groups lobby every administration to have an issue mentioned by the president as an indicator of his ambitions for the new year. Of course the odds for that happening are poor. And when it does, the mention does not always please.

I recall being less than thrilled when my home Port of New York-New Jersey was mentioned by Ronald Reagan in his annual address as having waste paper as a principal export commodity. His point was something about the country’s balance of trade, as I recall, but it was not America’s image that concerned me in that moment he was speaking to the nation.)

Back to this most recent SOTU, I noted that at one point Barack Obama uttered, “21st century transportation system.” However, no points were awarded (or drinks downed) as the phrase concluded a paragraph about investing in clean energy. Actually, the text reads as a bit of a nonsequitor, missing a connecting thought that his speech writers thought but didn’t write.  Here is the full paragraph:

Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy. Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future – especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.

Perhaps the president was referring to a carbon tax that would be used, among other things, to support transportation projects….or maybe he wasn’t.

If anything, here would have been the perfect spot to refer to the recently enacted surface transportation bill that he sought, and signed, but apparently the subject was not deemed sufficiently important to take eight or so seconds to say how he and Congress actually got something done. A joint session is a terrible thing to waste. (Apologies to “the mind.”)

After all, it was a fresh memory of just a few weeks since Congress rushed the significant FAST Act to the president. Politico asked some of the transportation leaders in Congress if they were miffed by the non-mention.  Yes, they responded, and if not miffed, then disappointed.

The speech did include two references to trade related topics, which can have some meaning for port people who wanted AT LEAST SOMETHING said having to do with portstuff.

That’s how we forged a Trans-Pacific Partnership to open markets, protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia. It cuts 18,000 taxes on products Made in America, and supports more good jobs. With TPP, China doesn’t set the rules in that region, we do. You want to show our strength in this century? Approve this agreement. Give us the tools to enforce it.

Fifty years of isolating Cuba had failed to promote democracy, setting us back in Latin America. That’s why we restored diplomatic relations, opened the door to travel and commerce, and positioned ourselves to improve the lives of the Cuban people. You want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere? Recognize that the Cold War is over. Lift the embargo.

Those have value to ports. Some ports have lined up behind the White House agenda for TPP approval, as has the American Association of Port Authorities, and indeed the Administration is asking port agencies and everyone else to make their support known on Capitol Hill where the negotiated, multilateral agreement faces an uphill battle for the consent of the Senate. Likewise, some ports, particularly those in the Gulf and South Atlantic, have worked for years to develop relationships in Cuba to be positioned well for a resumption of commercial relations. The Administration’s reconciliation initiative was welcome news to US exporters and gateways.

Both of those issues — TPP and Cuba — are ones that have the business community and the White House working as allies and a number of Democrats siding with Administration opponents.

So, there you go…a few words in the speech to note, but just a few. Is your favorite issue found in the 2016 State of the Union Address?   Pbea