Marine Transportation System

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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

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In Uncategorized on July 20, 2009 at 2:02 pm

TRANSpolicy ends and MTS Matters begins.  This blog is taking on a new look and a bit clearer focus.  The title better reflects my interest area–the marine transportation system–and what, for the most part, I have been bringing to the reader’s attention.  The new host (WordPress) offers more features and better serves an issue oriented blog and its readers.  Thanks for checking in on TRANSpolicy.  Come visit http://mtsmatters.com.   Pbea

The Sound of a Falling Container Trade (2008)

In Uncategorized on July 2, 2009 at 1:00 am

USDOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) issued “America’s Container Ports: Freight Hubs That Connect Our Nation to Global Markets."   It’s a look at the container trade in 2008 and it’s effect on US ports.  The stats, including the early years of containerization, are sliced, diced and tapped for potentially usable information.

The Sound of a Falling Container Trade (2008)

Spending Billions…And More To Come

In Uncategorized on June 30, 2009 at 1:20 pm

In February House Transportation Chair Jim Oberstar (D-MN) pledged periodic progress reports on the spending of ARRA, a.k.a. economic stimulus, appropriations for transportation projects.  Transportation related appropriations in the $750 billion stimulus package totalled $48.1 billion.  On June 25, 2009 subcommittee Peter DeFazio (D-OR) chaired the oversight hearing as to how well USDOT and the grant recipients have managed the transportation pot 120-days since enactment of ARRA.  As of June 15, USDOT reported that $47.5 billion was “announced” and $17.5 billion has been obligated.  Progress has been made on implementing the highly anticipated multimodal TIGER discretionary grants that is a new program managed in the Secretary’s office.  The $1.5 billion in grants will be awarded by next February; applications are due in September.  The link takes you to the taped hearing.

Spending Billions…And More To Come

In Uncategorized on June 27, 2009 at 2:16 pm

What does the Maritime Administration know about highway and mobility issues?  Should MARAD or some of the non-modal administrations at USDOT be given a vote on “intermodal” projects as the new Surface Transportation Amendments Act (STAA) directs? Both fair questions.   And the answers are (drum roll please): 1) More than you think they know, and 2) maybe it’s about time. ~  That part of the bill sets up a high ranking intermodal post and a program mechanism for judging projects for funding.  The purpose is to give the Secretary the input of the other parts of the department when making a decision on an intermodal project even when an agency might have less expertise in, say, an airport connector to an urban transit system.  However, in doing so it may start to dismantle…or at least lower…the modal silos and their sense that “what’s mine is mine and I don’t much care about yours."  And when those walls are lowered–or start to include windows and doors–it can foster an "ours” sense of fitting pieces together as well as an enhanced professional capacity in all areas of the department.  ~  As it happens, it’s the port maritime sector that may have the stronger sense of intermodalism and belief in the notion of seamless connections between all modes.  Take a look at a modern marine terminal today (the NY Container Terminal is our visual aid) and see how they are all about bringing ships to the rails and roads and the closer the better.  They are about moving cargo with increasing efficiency and reliability and getting it to and from the distribution centers.  The ports are about intermodalism.  So while the Maritime Administration does not have a history of managing large grant programs like their larger sister silos it has spent time giving attention to ports where the connections are made…and where they may be lacking.  Knowing that and then doing something about it is good for the system. – Pbea

In Uncategorized on June 26, 2009 at 2:16 pm

Chair Oberstar’s surface transportation bill….otherwise known as “Skipping the LU”

Caution: Slow Down MOVEMENT

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2009 at 2:16 pm

Rep. Laura Richardson (D-CA) apparently returned to Congress in January convinced she had a basically sound idea when the very new congresswoman from Long Beach introduced a bill last year to pay for port-related goods movement infrastructure projects with a $20/TEU container tax.   Of the revenue, 90% would go to freight related projects mostly within 40 miles of port, 7% would be allocated to projects mitigating environmental “damage,” and 3% would support homeland security projects.  When she introduced HR 2355–the MOVEMENT Act–in May 2009 she did so with some tweaks.  Most significantly is a switch of the revenue mechanism from a container tax to existing Harbor Maintenance Tax and with a leap from its current 0.125% of cargo value to 0.4375%.  The 0.3125% increase would be dedicated to this new purpose.  The basic intent of the bill to provide resources for gateway related infrastructure is a good one but venturing into HMT territory is a descent into troubled waters.  By all indications the U.S. port sector and the shippers who would pay the tax think the bill is flawed, some think it seriously so.  Then there is the risk of triggering a complaint to the WTO by U.S. trading partners.  Meanwhile advocates of a fix to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund see only complications with the proposed tampernig of a Federal charge that today is not fully utilized for the unmet demands of port navigation infrastructure.  In its current form, the bill is unlikely to garner support to let it move. – Pbea

Caution: Slow Down MOVEMENT

Freight Stakeholders Settled on Their Platform

In Uncategorized on June 24, 2009 at 4:02 am

The Freight Stakeholders Coalition “believes that the next surface transportation autohrization bill must maintain a strong federal role and provide for the creation of a national freight program."  With that as their starting point the coalition hammered out 10 planks in their platform, skipping the issues of fees and whether there should be a freight trust fund.  It’s a pretty good consensus document for a rather broad based group representing twenty public and private sector associations, coalitions and industry groups, one of which is a client.  – Pbea

Freight Stakeholders Settled on Their Platform

Adam Smith on the Cost of Freight Mobility

In Uncategorized on June 23, 2009 at 2:41 am

Adam Smith–no, different guy–reintroduced his proposal for a charge on the cost of moving freight in the U.S.  The Democrat congressman, who can see the Port of Tacoma from his home, would raise revenue from the equivalent of a 1 percent tax on ground transportation moves beyond 50 miles.  Like competing fee schemes introduced by other Members the receipts in Smith’s bill would go toward making freight related infrastructure improvements.  None of the three bills tossed in so far are palatable to the freight community but some see Smith’s as being a bit more reasoned. – Pbea

Adam Smith on the Cost of Freight Mobility

Proposed: Short Sea Transportation Grants

In Uncategorized on June 22, 2009 at 9:38 pm

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced S. 1308, which includes a section that would fill a gap in the still new Short Sea Transportation program (see the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, Public Law 110-140).  The Maritime Administration is reviewing comments filed in response to the interim final regulations for the program through which the DOT Secretary will designate marine highway corridors and select projects.  The gap is a funding provision to provide tangible financial support for marine highway projects that eventually are selected as worthy of Federal endorsement.  See section twelve in the bill, which was introduced a few days ago.  Lautenberg chairs the subcommittee of jurisdiction. – Pbea

Proposed: Short Sea Transportation Grants