Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘appropriations’

Holy Grail, PortMan!

In Congress, Efficiency, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Legislation, Ports, Water Resources on May 31, 2016 at 11:20 am

If you polled US port directors as to their major objectives in Washington, DC most would put at or near the top of their lists full funding, every year, from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. They would say, if a dollar is collected through the Harbor Maintenance Tax in a given year, then a dollar should be spent on maintenance dredging in ports large and small. One of the other things many would want to see is predictable, biennial water resource bills (WRDA) — say “wurda” — to advance navigation projects.

Well, this is your day, Mr. and Ms. Port Director!

The House Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (H.R.5303) is the timely followup to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (P.L. 113-121), and a hopeful return to a two-year cycle. It also would make it possible for for ports to realize the long desired full-use of the HMTF and the Corps of Engineers harbor maintenance program to be funded directly — as in do-not-stop-at-the-Appropriations-Committee.

But before you start counting long needed dredging dollars…there’s a catch. (We are talking about the congressional budget process, aren’t we?)  Too good to be true?  No….but there is a caveat to this good news. Let’s give it a name….call it “Delayed Port Director Gratification.”

Here’s the story.

Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the ranking Democrat on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, made it a priority to include in the new WRDA bill a provision that would shift the spending of HMTF resources from being in the discretionary category and subject to appropriations to being mandatory. It would mean less constrained budgeting by the Office of Management & Budget and more funding for channel and anchorage maintenance. Overtime, the underwater infrastructure would be more fully maintained to design dimensions. Around five years ago the Corps of Engineers estimated that sustained annual funding of $1,500,000,000 would keep American harbors adequately maintained.

Today even those Federal channels in major ports are not kept at their originally constructed depths and widths. Small harbors often get the short end of the spending stick and the resulting deferred maintenance means a decreasing ability to accommodate commercial and sometimes even recreation vessels. A few years ago the Corps of Engineers reported that almost 30 percent of commercial vessel calls at US ports are constrained due to inadequate channel depths. (Note: Peter DeFazio also included a provision for the small, “emerging” harbors.)

Congress has come to understand that while Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund monies are authorized for spending only for certain port navigation and administrative purposes, the low level of appropriations has resulted in an accumulating, unobligated balance approaching $9,000,000,000. The HMTF has been a convenient pot used by budgeteers to make the Federal deficit look smaller, not to make port channels more efficient. To their credit, House and Senate appropriators have gradually increased O&M funding to the point where the FY 2017 funding bills include $1,300,000,000. Still hundreds of millions of dollars short of meeting the navigation needs in US ports and full use of HMT revenue.

Such mandatory or “direct” spending as the DeFazio provision would make possible could put the trust back in the trust fund…eventually.

When “eventually?”

Eleven years from now….and for good reason.

The Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 requires that if Federal revenue is reduced, or spending is increased, it must be offset by a savings elsewhere or by new revenue. This was given the Monopoly game sounding name of PAYGO. A budget “score” indicates a proposal’s projected cost and that analysis has a ten-year horizon. If Congress were inclined to provide an immediate change in the HMTF statute to dedicate the full collection of the Harbor Maintenance Tax each year to be spent fully on navigation dredging projects each year the House and Senate would have to come up with ten years of replacement revenue for the Treasury.

However, if a change in revenue, such as the fencing of HMT receipts so they no longer would be blended with other Federal tax revenue, would become effective eleven years from now, that proposed change in the law would not require an offset under PAYGO. The House WRDA 2016 bill says it sweetly and simply:

Section 108(a). … [T]here shall be available to the Secretary [of the Army, who heads the Corps of Engineers], out of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, without further appropriation, for fiscal year 2027 and each fiscal year thereafter, such sums as may be necessary…”

The need for an offset is what has discouraged committee action to fix the HMTF in the past. Bill sponsors have largely left unspecified how to cover that multi-billion dollar cost…as a detail to be addressed at another time.

Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, introduced the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Reform Act (S.2729) last March. Their bill takes the immediate gratification route, both to address the “full use” issue and to address complaints among some of the large ports that have benefited little by current law.

The senators’ Seattle and Tacoma ports require little harbor maintenance funding and much the same is true in the San Pedro Bay ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. S.2729 would redirect some trust fund resources to certain needs in those ports.

I will go into the Murray-Cantwell bill in greater detail in another post. Suffice it to say that by not waiting patiently for eleven years to roll around the bill likely would require an offset of 10 x $1,600,000,000, to use current year revenue as an example. The odds against finding consensus in Congress on how to raise/save $16,000,000,000 is enough to eventually discourage most any optimistic lawmaker.

The provision in the recently adopted WRDA 2016 bill is credited to Peter DeFazio, who has the support and cooperation of Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), but a little history is worth noting. The objective of direct or mandatory spending from the HMTF and other infrastructure trust funds was an objective of this committee back when Bill Shuster’s late father, Bud Shuster (R-PA), was chairman of the committee and introduced the Truth in Budgeting Act.

What are the chances of the provision staying in the bill and becoming law? It’s hard to say. Even the delayed gratification strategy will run up against opposition in Congress and the Executive Branch. I expect it will hear objections from the Appropriations and Budget Committees. The former would likely would lose jurisdiction and the latter just doesn’t like mandatory spending even if it is secured by a dedicated tax or user fee. The White House Office of Management & Budget thinks similarly. Long considered the fiscal and policy nemesis of the civil works program, OMB will have a hard time dealing with the idea of the Corps getting its hands on more money. (Legislative Trivia: the House Budget Committee that in a separate report made its arguments against Bud Shuster’s Truth in Budgeting bill was chaired by John Kasich (R-OH)).

To be clear, there are legitimate arguments to be made against making spending from the HMTF mandatory, but if one is looking for a solution to the long-standing problem of under investment in the maintenance of the nation’s navigation system one finds no other practical options.

Okay, so the DeFazio provision will encounter opposition, perhaps debilitating opposition, in the next months. For the moment let’s focus on who will like the policy change represented by the DeFazio provision. Those are the port directors. Also port authority commissioners, maybe some elected municipal officials, governors, and of course, the industries and other stakeholders who depend on reliable harbor maintenance. They will have to make themselves heard on the issue if it has a chance of staying in the bill.

And if it succeeds in becoming law, they will just have to wait until 2027, knowing that the wait will be worth it.  Pbea

Much Ado About a Budget Resolution

In Congress, Infrastructure, Ports on March 31, 2015 at 12:31 am

At 4:24 am last Friday the Senate called it a night (or morning). Shortly before, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” quit deliberating, bringing its “vote-a-rama” session to a merciful end. “Deliberation” doesn’t apply very well here. When the Senate takes up its annual budget resolution and an around-the-clock offering of amendments it is anything but “long and careful consideration or discussion,” as defined in Oxford.

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) coached visiting constituents on Wednesday morning that this was great time to see the Senate from the gallery. The senator was right to the extent that one doesn’t often get a chance to see a majority of Members on the floor for an extended period of time. As promised, she and her colleagues were there touting and voting on amendments to the FY 2016 Budget Resolution in a rare display of a constant quorum in search of a budget framework. Probably more than a few of them were also in search of an expeditious deliverance from what at times has the appearance of an exhausting, even pointless, legislative exercise.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 11 is serious business, much like its cousin, H. Con. Res. 27, which on Wednesday the House of Representatives dispatched in far fewer bleary-eyed hours. When/if the process is concluded, the Congress will have a single congressional budget resolution—no White House signature needed, thank you—that sets enforceable limits on appropriations in broad categories, e.g. transportation, for the next fiscal year. It is a budget discipline that Congress created in 1974.

In this case, both chambers and their Republican majorities last week produced resolutions that maintain the increasingly constrictive caps and the across-the-board cuts of sequestration of the infamous Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA). Both resolutions project balanced budgets in ten years. Both put downward pressure on spending for  non-defense and defense discretionary (non-entitlement) programs. But both, ultimately, also create exceptions so as to boost defense spending above the BCA ceiling that John McCain (R-AZ) called “reckless” and “a disasterin his attempt to end the grip of sequestration on the DOD side of the ledger.

There are differences between the Senate and House resolutions, which may be resolved in conference between the two budget committees.

So, you might ask, what exactly is a “vote-a-rama” in the US Senate?” In large part, it is a chance for a large number of amendments to be taken up in a short amount of time. Everybody, in theory, has the opportunity to shape the broad framework for spending. Well, not really. It might better be described as rapid-fire amendments so one can go on record—or put the other guy on record—for or against something. Standard Senate rules are put aside for purposes of budget resolution consideration. No chance to spend 20 minutes airing an issue or in orderly exchanges with a colleague over some weighty matter. Instead, senators mostly were asked to vote on vaguely worded issue proxies that have little practical effect on spending decisions or the issues themselves.

Serious subjects may be raised but a senator has a minute to state her case, assuming her amendment—one of nearly 800 introduced—is among the few that actually get floor time. Some are approved without objection, others rejected or agreed to by recorded vote. Some are withdrawn—the point already made—or ruled out of order.

Susan Collins (R-ME) said “the process gets misused just to make the other side cast uncomfortable votes,” adding that “the budget should be a serious process…” One didn’t have to look far for a handy example, this one covering two political hot buttons in one amendment. A senator wanted to “establish a spending-neutral reserve fund relating to limiting the ability of Environmental Protection Agency personnel to carry guns.” The italicized phrase is the common form used in the amendments, helping make it pertinent to the budget resolution and within its dollar limits.

Where any subjects of relevance to the port/logistics world proposed in the wearying session last week? Yes.

Two proposed amendments were inspired by the recent West Coast longshore talks and slowdown. One was by Deb Fisher (R-NE) relating to a request that has been (or will be) made for the GAO to investigate “the impact of service disruptions at West Coast ports during 2014 and 2015.” The other was by Cory Gardner (R-CO) with the notion “to prevent labor disputes at seaports in the United States from causing national economic disruptions and crippling businesses across the United States.” Neither would have practical effect beyond perhaps establishing Senate sentiment as to what took place during the longshore negotiations. (No vote)

Deb Fisher, chair of the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security Subcommittee, and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), ranking Democrat on the Environment & Public Works Committee, sponsored an amendment to “strengthen waterborne commerce in our ports and harbors, which may include increasing the percentage of the amounts expended from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund that are dedicated to port infrastructure and maintenance.” What does that mean? They associated themselves with the notion of increasing O&M spending from the HMTF. Nothing more. (Adopted)

A freight-related amendment by Dean Heller (R-NV) aspires to ensure that the DOT Secretary prioritize “the construction of projects that are of national and regional significance and projects in high priority corridors on the National Highway System…” (Adopted)

In the same vein, Cory Booker (D-NJ) sought to “encourage freight planning and investment that incorporates all modes of transportation, including rail, waterways, ports, and highways to promote national connectivity.” (Adopted)

A Gary Peters (D-MI) amendment related “to supporting trade and travel at ports of entry.” (Adopted)

Patty Murray (D-WA) called for increasing funding for the TIGER grant program. (Adopted)

Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) proposed one “to ensure high-income earners pay a fair share in taxes and to use the revenue to invest in repairing our Nation’s bridges, coastal infrastructure, and damage from wildfires.” (Withdrawn)

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) got a vote on his amendment relating to EPA regulation of “greenhouse gas emissions, which may include a prohibition on withholding highway funds from States that refuse to submit State Implementation Plans required under the Clean Power Plan of the Agency.” (Adopted 57-43)

Today EPA’s Gina McCarthy today said, no problem, Senator. “EPA doesn’t have the legal authority” to do that anyway.

Pbea

What Will This Congress Do?

In Congress, Infrastructure, Marine Highway, Politics, Ports, Security, Surface Transportation Policy, Water Resources on January 9, 2015 at 1:45 pm

Nearly a dime’s worth of days into the New Year, this is no time to rehash what happened in the last Congress. A new Congress—the 114th of our maturing nation—is now underway. And what a new Congress it is.

Republicans now rule Capitol Hill and veteran Senate Democrats are being reminded of how it feels to be called Minority. (Republicans have held the majority in the House and Senate more often than not in the previous 10 congresses, since 1995.) At the other end of the avenue is a president who has confronted more than his share of domestic and international crises. January is the starting gun for his latest test – working with the 114th Congress and its routinely unfriendly and uncooperative Republican membership. In that respect, so far, there is not much new about this Congress.

The leaders in the House and Senate themselves face internal and external challenges as they assume on behalf of their caucuses the collective role of governing. Politico used apt “cliff” and “landmine” metaphors for what faces Speaker Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as they advance legislation through their own caucuses. The leaders know that the GOP is well positioned to turn around the “do-nothing Congress” label that the Republicans made possible—even intended—over recent years. (Yes, the dethroned Harry Reid hardly facilitated the legislative process in the Senate but Messrs Boehner and McConnell are faced with colleagues in the rank and file who came to Washington to stand in the way of government. Twelve Republicans found reason to vote against returning Boehner to the Speaker’s chair, as if he is didn’t well serve the cause(s) of conservative Republicans.) This go-round Democrats, with little control over committees, the bills they produce, and the floor schedule, will not be plausible scape goats for a failure to legislate. And in the Senate McConnell may be 6 votes shy of a filibuster proof majority but he has a pool of moderate Dems and an Indie who are potential “ayes,” such as we will see with the upcoming Keystone XL vote.

The success of a legislature is measured by legislative productivity. Can this Congress be productive with the Obama White House, which has vetoed exactly two bills in the past six years?

As previously noted, President Obama also will be tested. How well he will deal with the new Congress, his constitutional partner in making law? No doubt we will see more vetoes in his last two years in office but his legacy will depend more on what is accomplished than what he blocked.

In other words, they need each other. Few points will be awarded if progress is not seen in Washington. So, the question is whether the president can find within him the resolve of Bill Clinton, who famously made lemonade out of the GOP blowout of 1994, and whether the Republicans will function as if they want to be remembered as the “did-something Congress.”

All of that is background to a rundown of just some of the issues and questions that are of interest to the port/maritime industry and the larger freight sector.

The president put his previously stated policy view into surprise policy action with his late December announcement on normalizing diplomatic relations with Castro’s Cuba. Any number of ports, exporters and others were pleased by the news. There is bipartisan support among some in the House and Senate but Congress will either come down hard on the White House initiative or, rhetoric aside and with an eye on what Castro might do in the months ahead, show a willingness to reconsider the long-standing trade embargo that can only be ended by a change in law.

Last year, Congress came close to hitting the “target” of spending $1.2 billion from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The enacted water resources law (WRRDA 2014) sets ambitious, incrementally higher targets for Congress to meet with funding for channel maintenance and other work authorized to be supported by trust fund monies. Will the Republicans, as the saying goes, “put trust back in the trust fund” or continue to allow the Harbor Maintenance Tax assessment on cargo to be used as general revenue applied against the Federal budget deficit?

Last year the House and Senate produced a “sense of Congress” statement generally in support of the US-flag and Jones Act sectors. It can be interpreted as reaffirming existing maritime policy. Around the same time John McCain (R-AZ) reaffirmed his own maritime policy to undo the Jones Act in a speech to the Heritage Foundation. He and the petroleum industry actively urge changes to current law, which is to say, the end of the Jones Act. Meanwhile the Maritime Administration and the Secretary of Transportation will steer a draft National Maritime Strategy through the policy and political wringers of the White House. What will that document say about Administration policy and what if anything needs to be done to improve the US merchant marine or American ports?

In 2015 Congress will have to tackle surface transportation policy and funding. Will it include real money to renew freight corridors and build new infrastructure to support modern, intermodal commerce? Will Congress bite the bullet and find the money to pay it or, for that matter, to save the failing Highway Trust Fund? Past refusal by Congress to tackle this issue has depressed road and transit funding and been a principal expression of austerity economics—advocated by most Republicans, but abetted by many Democrats who also have avoided new revenue proposals—during a time when the country was climbing its way out of The Great Recession. Should this Congress produce a transportation bill that only perpetuates an inadequate level of funding and papers over the structural deficiencies of Highway Trust Fund financing it will not make for a convincing accomplishment.

The issues that may arise in the new Congress are many. Committees are establishing their work plans for the year ahead. What will the Republican majority serve up in the way of budget cuts and appropriations? Will a uniform ballast water policy finally become law? Will the TWIC reader rule that seems to assume container terminals to be at a lesser risk be implemented without alteration? How will Title XI vessel financing fare and will marine highway policy wither from inattention? Will Congress see a Federal role in helping ports, cities and businesses plan for rising sea levels and assist in improving waterfront infrastructure for the coming decades? Will the Coast Guard prepare helpful guidance and rules on cybersecurity and will the industry actively engage in developing it? Will Federal policy foster clean fuel initiatives for the freight modes and encourage off-shore wind energy development? How will the committees answer shipper complaints about railroads? Will a Republican Congress and a White House Democrat come to terms on tax reform, infrastructure funding, and trade policy?

At bottom, how well do the legislators of the new Congress—both Republicans and Democrats—understand, and how will they respond to, these and other issues of relevance to the port/maritime sector?  Pbea

The Murray-Cantwell Approach to Problem Solving

In Competition, Congress, Infrastructure, Intermodal, Water Resources on September 23, 2013 at 7:05 pm

This past week State of Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell introduced the Maritime Goods Movement Act of 2013 (S. 1905). Their inspiration for legislation came from what I have described as the unintended consequences of the Harbor Maintenance Tax, starting with complaints from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma that the Canadian competition to the north and the shippers, who are obliged to pay the Harbor Maintenance Tax when entering U.S. ports, were taking full advantage of the cost-differential where the HMT does not apply.

It is a complaint that was given some appearance of validity in a Federal Maritime Commission report issued last year and, a bit more convincingly, by data comparisons published by The Journal of Commerce last month.

At the request of the senators the FMC studied the role played by the HMT (0.125% of cargo value) in decisions to use the Vancouver and Prince Rupert gateways. The report, adopted by the FMC commissioners on a party line vote, didn’t make a strong case as to cause and effect. It did suggest that if an equivalent of the tax were applied in Canada “a portion of the U.S. cargo…likely would revert to using U.S. West Coast ports.” The report concluded by suggesting any remedy is in the hands of Congress not the regulatory agency.

The JOC looked at the issue by comparing market share within the PNW and among U.S. West Coast ports, where the HMT is uniformly applied. This is their finding in a nutshell:

Port data collected by The Journal of Commerce shows clearly that while Seattle and Tacoma have lost no market share relative to U.S. West Coast ports, their market share in the Pacific Northwest, a region that includes the Canadian ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, has slipped significantly in recent years.

That may not be conclusive of HMT culpability but it is indicative of competitive weakness just south of the 49th Parallel.  The comparative strength in British Columbia could be attributed to the HMT in addition to other factors, among them the efficient intermodal delivery system established as part of Canada’s ongoing Pacific Gateway Transportation Strategy.

Enter the Maritime Goods Movement Act User Fee proposed in the bill. The HMT would be repealed and then, for all practical purposes, recreated as the “MGMA User Fee.” In virtually every respect it would be like the HMT. The principal difference is that it also would be applied to U.S. bound cargo that first enters North America through Canada or Mexico.  Shippers would pay when the cargo crosses the land border.  On this bill rest the hopes of Puget Sound’s largest ports.

But the senators didn’t stop there. They also decided to try to fix the issue that is troubling most U.S. ports—the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The bill would make several changes—including expanded uses of the HMTF such as are found in the Senate-passed WRDA (S. 601)—but let’s here focus on the greatest failing of the law as it now stands. That is the under-spending of HMTF funds.

Unlike the RAMP Act that would rely on a parliamentary mechanism to leverage full funding over the objections of appropriators, and unlike the WRDA bills of the Senate and House that set funding targets at which appropriators might aim, the MGMA bill uses a direct approach. At the bottom of page 10 is this: “[N]o fee may be collected…except to the extent that the expenditure of the fee [for allowable activities] is provided for in advance in an appropriations Act.” It is a rarely used means tying revenue collections to the spending of those revenues. The transaction would occur outside the section 302 allocations that cap appropriations committee spending. In doing so it would remove the incentive for appropriators to limit allocations and would treat the HMTF more like a dedicated trust fund.

This approach is employed in other areas of government where a user fee is collected to support a specific function of government. The only downside is that to meet the requirements of budget rules Congress also would have to identify offsetting revenue to fill the hole that would be created when, as a first step to creating the new MGMA User Fee, the HMT would be repealed, thereby eliminating 10 years of projected revenue.  Yes, it gets murky down deep in the budget process. But the result would be the very easily understood concept of “dollars in, dollars out,” as a Murray aide summarized.

Finding the offset, in the range of billions of dollars, presents a real challenge to the bill sponsors. There is a reason why other attempts at legislative solutions have produced little more than “sense of Congress” statements of principle and funding targets that are…well…just targets. The climb up this legislative Hill is very steep and the obstacles—including leadership objections and the search for offsetting revenue—have been daunting.

While we are noting the degree of incline ahead, let’s add to this particular bill the likelihood of complaints to the State Department from Mexico and Canada, who are major U.S. trading partners, and opposition from shippers and the railroads that carry their cargo into the U.S.

But that doesn’t mean it is the wrong solution to an HMTF problem that has existed since the early 1990s. It is the right one because it would be a more effective and lasting way to link the revenue to the reason for the revenue, which is to keep American harbor channels maintained and our ports competitive.  Pbea

WRDA Words

In Infrastructure, Ports, Water Resources on May 7, 2013 at 12:05 am

The Senate is about to take up the first water resources bill since President George W. Bush signed WRDA 2007 into law.  By the count of many stakeholders–ports, river dependent shippers, flood weary communities–it is around four years late.  So if, for argument’s sake, the Senate passes the bill this month of May will WRDA 2013 spring into House action and to the desk of President Obama before Tidal Basin cherry trees feel the autumn cold and drop their leaves?  There’s reason to doubt it will happen that quick. But rather than peer that far into the legislative fog, let’s take a look at what is before the Senate now.

Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA) proudly produced S. 601 with the full support of the Committee on Environment and Public Works. They patterned their WRDA 2013 bill after MAP-21, which emerged from a dysfunctional Congress with bipartisan support. The water resources bill would authorize Army Corps of Engineers civil works projects to move ahead, update and reform parts of the base law dating to WRDA 1986, and attempt to streamline Federal process and delivery (construction) of projects. There is a lot to pick at and find fault with as with most public works bills. Some stakeholders will see more benefit than others. But for an economy that has been going wanting for the stimulus of public works construction the bill’s advancement to the Senate floor is being trumpeted. Five hundred thousand jobs, or so they say.

The bill has run into some buzz-saws. Environmental organizations and “tax-payer” groups have  loudly complained. It might be said that both are traditionally unfriendly to water project bills. The former argues for keeping navigation and other projects to an absolute minimum while favoring “environmental projects,” such as habitat restoration. The latter assumes there will be wasteful spending, which I would argue was certainly more true before the reforms of WRDA 1986 than it is today. The bill will result in “overspending, overcapacity, and substantial and unnecessary damage” to estuaries and harbors, or so they say.

Then there are the complaints made by leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee who predictably don’t like sections having to do with with the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. House and Senate Appropriators don’t like being told they have to fund seaport channel maintenance at the rate of collected Harbor Maintenance Tax revenue. And it’s not just because setting funding levels is their prerogative. It’s the little matter of having to come up with around $700,000,000 in additional funds. That’s a big lift in good fiscal times…and these are not good fiscal times.

Meanwhile Great Lakes senators who want the bill to assure full-use of HMT revenues for port channel maintenance are nervous, on behalf of their generally small-sized port industry, by the wording of the bill. The bill gives “high-use deep draft” ports priority status for HMTF expenditures. They want certainty that all small commercial ports are not “perennially put at the ‘back of the line’.” There are lots of other small ports in the country that would like that assurance spelled out.

Then there are the Washington State senators who have been champions of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) is in a strong position to say something about how much HMTF funds are budgeted, how the monies are being used and, more parochially, how the collection of the HMT in Pacific Northwest ports can be a reason for U.S. imports to enter North America through Canada.

Let’s not forget the Administration in all this. The White House official view cites reasons why the bill “doesn’t currently support all” of the Administration “key policies and principles” but it is carefully worded not to threaten a veto. It echoes the complaints of environmental organizations in the Statement of Administration Policy released today. The bill’s project streamlining provisions, among other things, undermine “the integrity of several foundational environmental laws.”

In her testimony before the committee where she once worked, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy told Boxer and Vitter last February that the Obama Administration supports a channel maintenance  spending level that “reflects consideration for economic and safety return of each potential investment” in maintenance as well as taking into consideration “other potential uses of the available funds,” the meaning of which is troubling for ports whose primary concern is ensure the use of “available funds” for harbor maintenance only. The testimony includes a flat statement in opposition to the idea of fully using collected HMT revenue for channel maintenance. Spending “should not be based not the level of receipts from the current tax.”

The SAP has a few odds things in it, including an incorrect description of the proposed change to the cost-sharing requirement that ports have to pay part of the incremental cost of maintenance of  channels deeper than 45 feet. The bill would shift the sharing of costs to apply to channels deepened beyond 50 feet. It is in the bill as recognition of the increasing standard size of vessels and the fact that cost-sharing was to be required only when greater depths are needed exceptionally large vessels, which in 1986 were super tankers and colliers, not container ships.

Senators Boxer and Vitter have been preparing a “manager’s amendment” to serve as a substitute for the version of S. 601 that emerged from their committee. We await its debut because it will reflect the compromises that have been made to address some of those complaints.

Word is that the HMTF full-use provisions were weakened at the appropriators’ insistence in return for a pledge to increase O&M appropriations somewhat. Word is that changes were made to accommodate some concerns of environmental organizations. We now wait to see the words.      Pbea

 

Two Trust Funds in Search of a Solution

In Infrastructure, MTS Policy, Ports, Water Resources on October 25, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Yesterday Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander (R) stood near Chickamauga Lock in Chattanooga and said, “We have two trust funds to deal with waterway infrastructure like the Chickamauga Lock, and neither of them works.”  He tells the truth.

The senator and former governor convened a presser to preview legislation–the American Waterways Act–that he and others will introduce when Congress resumes its session after the November election. The still in draft bill would tackle some financially challenging issues because the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (river system) and the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (for the most part coastal ports) are both at the center of current navigation infrastructure problems and the ultimate solutions to those problems.

The IWTF fund, with collections from a fuel tax on commercial vessels operating on the inland system, raises insufficient funds for what is a large, backlogged demand for lock and dam construction and rehab work. The users of the system have proposed changes in cost-sharing as well as increases in the fuel tax.

As has been discussed elsewhere in MTS Matters the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is a problem of a different kind. The ad valorem tax on cargo raises sufficient funds to cover the nation’s channel maintenance requirements but the Administration and Congress do not spend O&M funds at a rate commensurate with collections. The crafters of the planned bill are said to be working on how to assure annual appropriations at full-use levels as well as to free the accumulating surplus–now above $7 billion–for port projects.

The greatest challenge in drafting the legislation is the high hurdle presented by congressional budget rules. Based on what we have heard, the drafters intend to enable  the spending of tens of billions of dollars for construction and maintenance work over a 5 to 10 year period.  Even if the existing and future collections from the fuel and cargo taxes can handle that, as is the plan, Congress would have to effectively waive budget rules to get past procedural barriers. That doesn’t happen often. Moreover, it would require consensus among the key actors and probably a majority in the House and a super-majority in the Senate.

And while there has been significant growth in the ranks of advocates on these issues, solutions to the IWTF and HMTF problems have yet to achieve that kind of consensus.

The AWA–if it isn’t premature to assign an abbreviation to a measure not yet introduced–would have other provisions.  Senator Alexander identified these:

  • address regulatory and permit process streamlining projects by adopting the MAP-21 approach to speeding projects;
  • shift the 50/50 cost-sharing requirement for coastal channel maintenance from 45 feet to apply to those channels deeper than 50 feet;
  • open the HMTF to now ineligible port projects, to include landside projects (especially to satisfy ports like Los Angeles that don’t have much in the way of O&M dredging needs);
  • authorize a 5-year construction program to advance projects to deepen ports to accommodate post-panamax ships needing around 50-foot depths (to include Charleston and other planned deepenings that meet the present 3.0 benefit/cost test);
  • make the increasingly expensive Olmsted Lock project on the Ohio River a fully Federal responsibility, which would free IWTF resources to start other waiting construction projects; and
  • require the Federal government to follow the Inland Waterways Capital Development Plan developed by the industry and Corps of Engineers for an increase in the fuel tax and a 20-year schedule for projects.

The guts of the Inland Waterways Capital Development Plan were put into legislative language found in HR 4342, the WAVE 4 Act,  introduced earlier this year byRep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY). Worth noting, the Administration put forward a different proposal to address the ITWF problem and had been at loggerheads with the industry with no agreement in sight.

The likely sponsors of AWA are from both parties and will include principal sponsors Lamar Alexander and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), plus others who may include Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).  Feinstein and Alexander are the lead senators on the appropriations subcommittee that funds the civil works program.

Why are senators talking about introducing a controversial reform bill soon before the 112th Congress comes to a close? There are several answers, one of which is that the House and Senate are preparing to tackle major fiscal and revenue decisions (see “fiscal cliff“). Resolving the navigation trust fund problems could be made easier as part of the larger debate.  Also, as I mentioned in The WRDA Mantra post, an effort may be made to move water resources legislation (WRDA) during lame duck.  The AWA is squarely in WRDA territory and Alexander needs to be ready to jump on-board even if the odds of WRDA advancing are slim to none.  Push come to shove, the senators who introduce the AWA bill this year will be staking claim to the issue in the next congress.

Let’s face it.  The American Waterways Act, as it has been developing in the months leading up to Senator Alexander’s announcement, is an extremely ambitious package.  It will entail getting Congress to approve significant hikes in commercial navigation project spending, increase the fuel tax, venture into the touchy subject of expanding uses of the HMTF, and streamline permitting on some water resource projects that have been a favorite target of environmental conservation organizations…none of which are reasons to put a halt to such ambitious foolishness.

Said Lamar Alexander yesterday, “The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund collects a lot of money, but doesn’t spend it well. The Inland Waterways Trust Fund doesn’t collect much money, but spends it well. This bill would fix the way our ports and waterways are funded so that we can meet the challenges they face…”

Here’s a challenge for a do-something Congress.  Pbea

One Hundred Percent Security

In Congress, Federal Government, Ports, Security on July 23, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Not even Ivory Soap is 100 percent.  It may float but, as the once ubiquitous slogan puts it, Ivory doesn’t do better than “99 and 44/100 percent pure!”

So if the blue chip labs of Proctor & Gamble can’t deliver a simple matter of 100 percent pure soap why should anyone think it’s possible to implement 100 percent cargo scanning before the boxes hit our shore?  …Or think 100 percent secure U.S. coastlines is possible. Okay, sure, that last one sounds a bit silly but we’re dealing in facts here.

In the months following the attacks of September 11 former Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS) insisted that America could be completely secured along the over 12,000 miles of seacoast. A tight seal that would catch whomever and whatever might dare to sneak into our collective nightmare.  He persisted, earnestly, in pressing that point to a hearing witness, a retired Coast Guard rear admiral who found it hard to believe the congressman was serious.

In more recent years the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has struggled with that kind of no-exceptions, no-excuses expectation. The sort that has plagued the TSA for much of its existence. Congress directed the U.S. agencies to go forth and have image and radiation scanning equipment installed in every overseas port that exports containerized cargo to the U.S. We don’t want terrorists to view our ports as easy gateways for nuclear weapons guised as consumer goods.

One result of al-Qaeda proving the nation’s vulnerability was an almost immediate national awareness of our seaport system. Open doors in the global village. America had security in place at airports–tragically loopholed as it was–while at our ports the Federal agencies were on the lookout mostly for contraband, plant disease, and the occasional stowaway. Flood-lit attention quickly zeroed in on the seaports and land borders. Persons such as Stephen Flynn filled the vacuum as government and news agencies required expert testimony and quotable expressions of alarm.

The policy response was understandable. New laws, quickly crafted regulations, and a flood tide of security personnel. A new department was created when small-government Republicans largely dominated in Washington.

By 2007 two maritime security laws had been enacted and a considerable security regime was in place in our harbors, on cargo ships and in the supply chain. Countries and companies trading with the U.S. were told to meet our terms. Hundreds of millions of grant dollars were spent to harden security in large and small ports. (Over $2,000,000,000 for port security grants since then.) Funding also was provided for three pilot tests of 100 percent scanning  in overseas ports. Then Congress upped the ante.

A new “full-scale implementation” requirement was put in place to deny entry to cargo containers unless they were “scanned by unobtrusive imaging equipment and radiation detection equipment at a foreign port before it was loaded on a vessel.” The shipping/logistics industry explained why that wasn’t good policy or particularly feasible. Nevertheless a deadline of July 2012 was set for 100 percent scanning along with authority for the Secretary of Homeland Security to extend the deadline as necessary.

Not surprisingly, in June Secretary Napolitano reported to Congress that the deadline would not be met and has pushed out the compliance date to July 2014.  Months before, the GAO gave testimony on the state of containerized cargo security.  It is a readable statement about the layered, risk-based security regime that is in place and the challenges the government has experienced both here and abroad in securing the country against smuggled nuclear devices.

The legislators stand 100 percent behind their 100 percent requirement. In an op-ed piece three House Members acknowledge that the original deadline was ambitious but want to keep the pressure on an executive branch they doubt wants to see full-scale implementation. “Cost and technology have never been the primary obstacles to meeting this mandate. What is missing is a sense of urgency and determination.” Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) said in a Washington Post story, “I personally do not believe they intend to comply with the law…. This is a real terrorist threat, and it has a solution. We can’t afford to wait until a catastrophic attack.”

Don’t expect this issue to be resolved anytime soon. Few in Congress will go on record to remove the requirement.

Should we expect–even want–100 percent security at any cost? In a global supply chain so extensive and complex is absolute security possible? Ask voters if they are willing to be subjected to metal detectors and armed guards at their local Loews Cinema after what just happened in Aurora. Where will the next troubled mind chose to bear arms?  At the Harris Teeter meat counter?

In 2002 I met with the fellow who headed the transportation branch at the Office of Management and Budget. He and his colleagues were struggling with the budgetary response to September 11. They faced the practical questions of what can be afforded even when we had horrific cause to be generous with tax dollars–and indeed, the money flowed–and whether unlimited spending could really make the nation secure. How do we determine risk in order to set priorities? Could money buy the “full-scale” securing of the American transportation system? How does one make a public transit system 100 percent secure?

Go to the Ivory Soap website–actually a Facebook page–and you see this absurdly-reassuring corporate statement that could be a Madison Avenue rewrite of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. “Ivory provides freedom from nonsense and complexity by giving you everything you need and nothing you don’t.”

Just don’t look for 100 percent.   Pbea

HMTF: A Bump and RAMP Strategy

In Infrastructure, Ports, Water Resources on April 27, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Bump and RAMP doesn’t sound like a sophisticated legislative strategy.  It certainly isn’t a complicated one.  But when one is talking about the world of dredging one must do what one can to make it sound interesting.

As I’ve discussed previously the RAMP Act is an attempt to remedy a failing of current law.   A tax is collected on some of the beneficiaries of port infrastructure–specifically channels, turning basins, anchorages–in order to cover the cost of maintaining–specifically dredging–that Federal navigation infrastructure.

You can read about the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) by going to previous postings:  RAMP Gets Its Chance and  The Seven Billion Dollar Clue.  (Hmm…those like a lot like Hardy Boys titles.  Who?…oh, never mind.)

The procedural (point-of-order) solution in the RAMP legislation is not a complete solution.  There is nothing to mandate full funding of channel maintenance.

Absent an automatic funding mechanism that effectively bypasses congressional appropriations–which ain’t happening–the president will have to budget for channel maintenance every year and Congress will retain the prerogative to decide how much to spend.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow ports and other stakeholders have to make the case to Congress in support of the Corps of Engineers channel maintenance program.  While the RAMP lobbying effort, led by the dredging industry, has proceeded so has the routine effort to increase the level of appropriations for channel maintenance. Bumping up the annual funding has been the persistent and particular point of emphasis for the American Association of Port Authorities along with others.  And the effort has seen success.

Since FY 2009 the appropriation from HMTF funds has progressively grown from $773 million to $833 million in FY 2012.  The FY 2013 budget, now subject to appropriations committee attention, estimates $839 million will be used from the fund.

Most, but not all, of the appropriated amounts apply to port O&M costs.  Some goes to dredged material management facility construction, offsets for St. Lawrence Seaway tolls on the U.S. side, and for administrative overhead costs. If we look at the HMTF allocation to O&M the growth over that same timeline has been from $737 million to $767 million, in actual spending, and $779 million budgeted for FY 2013.

That’s modest growth, especially considering the fact that over the same period HMTF annual revenue (HMT receipts + interest) grew from $1.253 billion to an estimated $1.864 billion in FY 2013.

But it is growth in a time when Federal spending isn’t exactly growing like gangbusters.

One might attribute the growth to the RAMP effort, which commenced in 2008, and to AAPA’s bump-up strategy.  Those complementary and not exclusive efforts have shone a bright light on the inconvenient fact that the infrastructure maintenance buying  power of dedicated user-taxes has been capped while Federal-managed channels are allowed to shoal.

As of this writing, 44 percent of the House Members have cosponsored Rep. Boustany’s RAMP Act (HR 104) and over one-third of the Senate has signed on to Sen. Levin’s S. 412.  Those numbers reflect a bipartisan sensitivity to taxes collected but not used-as-promised as well as a greater awareness of the correlation between full-depth channels and the ability of U.S. exports to compete successfully on the global market.

That increased appreciation on Capitol Hill for the muddy, mundane world of maintenance dredging explain the two most recent and significant developments to date.

First, the House of Representatives voted, by voice, in support of full funding of Federal channel maintenance.  The vote was an easy one.  It doesn’t have an enforcement provision,  so there is nothing in the approved amendment to ensure full funding in future appropriations.  That explains why the amendment–a watered down HR 104, also sponsored by Rep. Boustany–didn’t have the opposition of committees that object to the RAMP Act as well as any other proposals for mandatory spending from trust funds.

That said, it is slightly stronger language than the “sense of Congress” provisions contained in the House and Senate transportation bills and which simply say what the Administration and Congress should do.  So, for the first time, the full House is associated with the view that the total spending from the HMTF should equal HMTF revenue.

Second, and quantifiably more significant, the House Appropriations Committee this week approved a record level of funding from the HMTF for FY 2013.   It is a handsome, marvelously round number of $1 billion.  It is over $150 million more than in the president’s budget, which itself represents an increase.

We don’t know as yet what is the comparable HMTF allocation on Senate side but the draft committee report is quotable:

The Committee understands that the O&M budget fluctuates from year to year due to periodic maintenance dredging requirements, however, the general trend should be for this budget to increase.

Yes, indeed…all the way to the annual level of user-taxes being paid to keep the channels fully maintained.  So far, the trend is in the right direction.  Pbea

HMTF: RAMP Gets Its Chance

In Congress, Ports on February 14, 2012 at 11:33 am

HR 7, the surface transportation (and energy) bill that was reported from the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the wee hours of February 3, has a wee Water Transportation title whose only provision is hortatory language about full use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.

The HMTF, along with the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, was left out of the full-funding fixes that the transportation committees muscled through Congress for the highway and transit programs in 1998 (TEA-21) and Airport Improvement Program in 2000 (AIR-21).

Chairman John Mica (R-FL) wanted to do something to remedy that oversight and, for the moment, that something is the “sense of Congress” that the HMTF “is not being used for its intended purpose” and fails “to provide the service for which it was established is unfair and places the National at economic risk.”  The Administration “should request full use” for channel work and “Congress should fully expend” what is in the fund.

Optimistically, the language is a placeholder for something with a bit more teeth, specifically the text of HR 104, the RAMP Act, that Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA) and 171 colleagues sponsored in the hope of prying more out of the trust fund for deep draft channel O&M.  RAMP is an opaque acronym for Realize America’s Maritime Promise, the coalition that has advanced the issue.

HR 104 is modeled on the point-of-order approach employed in AIR-21 and which has had a role in leveraging substantial funding from the Aviation Trust Fund. However that doesn’t mean the procedural remedy would ensure full-funding from the HMTF. There is no guarantee. For that reason HR 104 is thought to have a better chance of winning Hill approval than would, for example, a mandatory spending requirement that is  the Hill committee turf battle equivalent of Iraq invading Kuwait for its oil.

The bill is intended to force the hand of the Appropriations Committees. But, you see, appropriators like to protect their prerogative to appropriate when, how much and for what. That explains why appropriations leaders are fighting RAMP. That and the fact that the appropriators have a long and bruised memory of being bested by one of Mica’s predecessors, Bud Shuster, in the TEA-21 and AIR-21 “truth in budgeting” fights.

There’s another reason. Assume the RAMP Act becomes law. If appropriators were forced to add, say, another $500,000,000 for channel maintenance they would have to do so within the parameters of the annual budget cap established through a separate budget process. If that cap isn’t increased by $500,000,000 then the added O&M money would have to come from other program areas. Having to cut a half-billion dollars is when it isn’t any fun being on the Appropriations Committee.

Chairman Mica decided on a strategy to add the HR 104 to HR 7 when the latter moved to the House floor for amendments. With 171 co-sponsors and a sustained advocacy effort on the part of ports, dredging contractors, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others, an amendment stands a pretty good chance. RAMP advocates also are pressing for the Senate counterpart measure, S. 412, to be added to the MAP-21 surface transportation bill, S. 1816.

On February 1, the Ways and Means Committee held a maritime taxes hearing. Rep. Boustany, who chairs the Oversight Subcommittee of the tax panel, used the hearing to make the case for his bill. He polled witnesses from four ports and Louisiana’s agricultural commissioner.  All spoke to the economic efficiencies of vessels operating at full capacity when provided sufficient channel depth. When allowed to make the most of a ship’s capacity US exports prove to be more competitive on the world market.

On February 3, Ways and Means met on a bill to extend the Highway Trust Fund related taxes, the essential revenue piece for HR 7. Ways and Means Committee does not have jurisdiction over the HMTF even though it does have jurisdiction over the Harbor Maintenance Tax. That didn’t prevent Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) from offering an amendment to 1) add the RAMP Act to the bill and, 2) increase eligible uses of the HMTF. Having naturally deep water the ports of Seattle and Tacoma are among a small number that have little need for channel maintenance funding and in that way do not benefit by the cargo tax collected in those ports. (See the fairness discussion in the previous MTSM post.)  Rep. McDermott explained that by expanding eligible port uses of the HMTF to include “infrastructure improvements or repairs” Seattle, for example, might obtain funding for a needed seawall project. As noted, the committee had no jurisdiction. The amendment was withdrawn. Rep. Boustany said he would work with Rep. McDermott on the matter.

This week on the House floor Boustany amendment #180 will be offered to HR 7. Rep. McDermott will attempt his amendment #178. And you can watch it all on C-Span.  Pbea

HMTF: The Seven Billion Dollar Clue

In MTS Policy, Ports, Water Resources on February 11, 2012 at 6:04 pm

The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) is overdue for a remedy. How do we know? The unspent balance of Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) receipts, plus interest, is a mere $7,000,000,000.

HMT receipts are accounted for in the channel “maintenance” trust fund. However (not to be too picky) the Federal channel system is not fully maintained, and not for lack of money (see “mere” above). That and other information can be found in this 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service.

(A Moment for Trivia: The HMT is considered by some folks a user fee but as the Supreme Court figured out, unanimously and with little effort, the value-based charge on cargo bears little relationship to the service being provided i.e., maintaining channel depths and other dimensions for vessels, and “therefore does not qualify as a permissible user fee” under the export clause of the Constitution.)

The HMT is collected on import and domestic cargo handled at most US ports. On cruise tickets, too. The majority of what is collected comes from the high volume, high value imports; much less from comparatively low value domestic cargo moving between American ports. US exports cannot be charged, sez the Supreme Court.

The HMT was set to cover 100 percent of the cost of coastal channel maintenance. But if 100 percent of the channel maintenance that is needed isn’t done then 100 percent of the funds isn’t spent. It’s the kind of math that even I can understand.

Well, you might say, that’s okay because the money is safe in a trust fund. It is dedicated for maintenance dredging, right? It will be there when it’s needed, right?

Sure, but the balance has grown every year since 1994 and, more to the point, full funding is justified now. According to the Corps of Engineers the total channel system, including small recreational harbors, would cost around $1.3 billion a year. And even if the money is sitting in a trust fund collecting interest, it actually is being put to an unrelated purpose. Turns out the HMTF is a handy offset, especially when you are running a Federal deficit. Makes the deficit a little lower–$7,000,000,000 lower.

The money is collected for a specific purpose but is not being spent fully for that purpose. More than a few folks argue that is not fair. Especially the ones who have a direct stake in channel dredging such as ports and dredging contractors.

But then fairness has been an issue since the HMT and the HMTF were made law.

In the mid-80s Congress deliberated how to offset the cost of Federal channel maintenance (originally by 40 percent and then a few years later by 100 percent). Some ports argued that because heavy cargo weighs down a ship the new user fee for maintaining channel depth should applied to cargo tonnage.

Other ports took the opposite view, pointing to how heavier cargoes are often low value as well as low margin US exports. They said the charge should be on cargo value, arguing that containerized cargo could afford the charge. And since the vessel operators had already succeeded in fending off a fee on the vessel (arguably the direct user of the channel) it came down to which ports and kinds of cargo had the most, or least, votes in Congress.

The “fairness” question was decided in favor of the greater number of ports, which were export oriented and/or whose channel maintenance costs might be expected to exceed channel fee collections in those harbors.

As was patently obvious the major international gateways would produce a substantial portion of the revenue. Indeed in 2005—yes, most HMTF data is musty stuff because the Federal government unreliably produces the mandated annual report—the top cargo value ports of LA (13.7%), NYNJ (12.2%) and Long Beach (12.2%) represented nearly $380 million, which was more than one-third of HMT receipts. The top ten ports by value handled over 68 percent.

Some of them, as it happens, also require little in the way of channel maintenance. (I’ll get more into that subject in a later post.)

The HMT and the HMTF are in ways unfair and they are imperfect by design. The value basis of the tax can be explained as a seaport maintenance policy crafted for nation where no seaport has the same cargo, cargo type, volumes or geography and whose Constitution forbids Congress giving “preference” to one port over another (Article 1, Section 9).

We can’t be so generous and understanding with the way the HMTF is crafted in law and managed in the budget process.

Changing the basis of the HMT is politically unlikely (see “snowball’s chance in Honolulu”). As for the HMTF, changing the law is not easy but it is doable. (To be continued.) Pbea

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