Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘Harbor Maintenance Tax’

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Today, the still unpublished document is nearing the end of the draft process.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

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

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

 

A Red Cape Wish List

In Environment, Infrastructure, Ports, Water Resources on March 17, 2013 at 11:28 pm

The first formal expression of what the Obama Administration is looking for in a water resources bill came to light the other day in a March 14 letter from Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy to Senate Environment & Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The letter provides requested “input on the development of a Water Resources Development Act.” It arrives none too soon. The chairman, with ranking Republican David Vitter (R-LA), is about to release their bipartisan recommendations for WRDA 2013.  A Committee mark-up session is scheduled days from now.

Ms. Darcy outlines a sort of policy wish list, one that has familiar themes from current and past Administrations–watershed planning, process improvement, and authorization of projects “most likely to generate a high return to the Nation.”  More notably the letter’s message crosses into territory that knowingly will have the effect of a matadors’ red cape in a dirt-floor arena.

For flood plain communities…the letter suggests that Congress “re-examine the Federal role following a flood in reconstructing public infrastructure including levees and other flood and storm damage reduction features.” It goes on to suggest reconsideration of “law and policies that influence where and how we rebuild.”

For shoreline and other flood prone communities…the Administration view goes further, calling on the legislature to “retroactively revise the stated purpose of all existing [Corps of Engineers] authorities that include flood control, storm or hurricane protection, or shore protection as a project purpose.” Reducing “the risk of flood damage in areas beyond the shore” is one thing; protecting and defending a shoreline alignment “for its own sake” is quite another.  Either way, it’s a timely subject just months after Superstorm Sandy carved its mark on the coastline.

What is driving this call for new water resources policy? Probably not much more than concerns about program cost and environmental consequence, aggravated by a whole lot of meteorological weirdness. Yes, global warming. And while both of those are concerns shared by some folks in Congress the letter’s recommendations run counter to civil works tradition and to the inclination of public officials to say yes to building and repairing solutions to flooding and the disappearance of coastline back home.

The letter doesn’t have a lot new—or reassuring—for the port/navigation community.  The statement on the navigation trust funds may break a few hearts but not new ground. The letter reiterates the Administration’s proposed fix for the broken Inland Waterways Trust Fund including a new fee structure, which the waterway industry has opposed in favor of building on the existing fuel tax regime.

It also expresses an unambiguous view in counter direction to the lobbying by ports and dredgers to increase channel maintenance funding and have full-use made of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. Instead, the Darcy letter flatly states, “spending should not be based on the level of receipts from the current tax.”

That principle could be debated, but it fails to acknowledge the fact that the Corps of Engineers she oversees is on record as saying the annualized national need for port maintenance dredging is in the neighborhood of $1.5 billon, which is a whole lot closer to the HMT annual tax receipts, projected to be $1.659 billion this year, than the roughly $850 million budgeted by the Administration for O&M this year.

It’s hard to understand walking away from the obligation to maintain what you built when the lack of money ain’t an available excuse.  This from the White House that recently announced a “Fix It First” policy for U.S. infrastructure.

Interestingly enough, arriving the same day as ASA Darcy’s letter was an email message with a transcript of a recent meeting at which President Obama talked to mayors, seemingly off-the-cuff, about the need to address port and waterway infrastructure in order to keep the U.S. competitive on the export market. In fact there are faint signs that his next budget (FY 2014) will have a fairly strong channel maintenance budget, but the Darcy letter is a clear indication that we should not look for any structural improvements in policy to guarantee full-use of the HMTF.

The Senate committee will meet soon to take up a WRDA bill. It will attempt to address the HMTF issue, the insufferable slowness of the civil works project planning process, the brutalizing of coastal areas by powerful storms, and a lot of other things in need of attention. But views expressed in the Darcy letter, on behalf of the Administration, may not be represented to any significant degree, in a bill that is a bipartisan product. And it won’t come close to resembling the bill that the Republican dominated House will produce later this year.  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

FMC on HMT: Unintended Consequences

In Congress, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Ports, Water Resources on October 18, 2012 at 11:52 am

In July the Federal Maritime Commission released a study that claims a relationship between the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) charged in U.S. ports and logistics decisions that result in some imports bypassing U.S. gateways and moving through Canadian ports to American destinations.

Concerns at the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma that the HMT are tilting the competitive field prompted the study.  These are long standing concerns that predate the cargo fee.

In the mid-80s Congress eventually acceded to the Reagan Administration’s insistence that the cost of maintaining Federal coastal channels be recovered through a new user fee.  The main question was how to collect the fee, which at that time was proposed to cover 40 percent of channel O&M.  It is now 100 percent.

The issue of maintenance fees and cost-sharing on improvement projects—another Reagan demand—prompted a split among port authorities. A “small port coalition,” consisting of ports of all sizes, many of which handled cargo that made it easy to find political allies, wanted to avoid a fee that would burden low margin cargo such as export grain and coal.  Some of those ports with outsize channel maintenance requirements fought any suggestion that the new policy require their dredging costs to be supported by fees collected in their ports.  If a port had to rely on its cargo volume to cover its dredging costs the New Yorks, Norfolks, and Oaklands would have an advantage, not to mention those ports with naturally deep water.

Notwithstanding the efforts of the “large port coalition” that dominated the container trade and favored a charge on cargo tonnage, the small port coalition had success in defining the revenue mechanism. Key committee leaders, most notably Chairman Bob Packwood (R-OR) of the Senate Finance Committee, settled on a fee that would go easy on American export commodities and, as it happens, raise a tidy sum for the new Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The new HMT would be applied to cargo value, not tonnage.

Seattle and Tacoma (members of the large port coalition, for the curious reader) opposed the HMT provision. They sought to be exempt from the cargo fee, fearing the advantage it would create for nearby Vancouver, B.C. in the container trade. (Did they even imagine a Prince Rupert was in their future?) Their objections to the HMT won them only a section in the new WRDA ’86 law that tasked the Treasury Department, where the Customs Service was located, to study and report to Congress on any effect the HMT had on diverting cargo from U.S. ports.

A year or so later Customs reported back with its conclusion: no effect of diversions.  With no formal report to refer to one wondered how Customs arrived at that determination.

In the 25 years that passed since the HMT became law we have seen the tax increase from 0.04% to 0.125%, the Supreme Court quickly came to a 9-0 decision and voided the HMT on exports, and the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund’s unexpended and seemingly untappable balance has ballooned to over $7,000,000,000.

Through those years, and with the addition of Prince Rupert to American West Coast woes, the Sea-Tac ports have pressed the argument that the HMT contributes to the loss of cargo. The fact that those ports benefit little by the HMT revenues—they require little in the way of dredging—is salt in the wound.

Enter the Federal Maritime Commission. Washington State senators asked the FMC for analysis of the extent to which the “HMT and other factors impact container cargo diversion from U.S. west coast ports to west coast Canadian and Mexican ports.”

The FMC was fertile ground for such a request. In the 1980s Maryland Port Administration attorney Richard Lidinsky energetically fought “Canadian diversion.”  Today he chairs the FMC.

The FMC inquiry commenced in late 2011, public comments were received, and the resulting “Study of U.S. Inland Containerized Cargo Moving Through Canadian and Mexican Seaports” was released in July 2012.  The conclusion: no FMC related law or regulation is violated in the use of the Canadian ports but the HMT plays a role to the extent that it adds to the cost of transportation.

The FMC study noted that ports compete on “a wide variety of variables.” (Such was the essence of the shipper and carrier comments–easily the most detailed and responsive comments submitted in the public process–that didn’t confirm the report’s presumption that the HMT is a factor in decisions to use Rupert.)  The study found no significant difference in cargo transit times moving through the U.S. and Canadian gateways. It acknowledged that the rates through Prince Rupert are lower but stated that other factors in the supply chain make it “difficult to conclude that transportation costs are significantly lower.”

The study employed a ports elasticity model developed years before by Dr. Robert Leachman. The FMC concluded that if the HMT (estimated to average $109 per FEU) were eliminated in the Sea-Tac ports, or if an equivalent charge were put on the U.S. bound cargo when crossing the land border, “up to half” of the containers “could revert to using U.S. west coast ports.” The report concluded that the HMT “does appear to be one competitive force that is not based on natural competition, but may indeed be a legislative disadvantage on some U.S. ports” i.e., an unintended consequence.

What is one to make of the study?  It is not conclusive in the way we like to have questions settled.  The FMC document has its critics within the agency, with two commissioners voting against its release. One called it “a political policy paper to justify a predetermined conclusion.” The other wondered why, if the HMT is such a discouragement, does Canada-bound cargo use U.S. ports?

After 25 years do we yet know the extent of the problem, assuming it is a problem?

If anything, the study gives Sea-Tac and their advocates in Congress something to quote as they lobby for a fix. One such fix, an exemption from the HMT, is not in the cards. (Why would other ports go along with that?)

Legislation has been drafted to apply an equivalent charge on U.S. cargo when it crosses the land border (a “land border loophole”?), the revenue from which might be put to making freight improvements. But is the FMC study enough to convince Federal policy makers to slap a fee on cargo entering through Canada or Mexico? Dress it up to look like a user fee to support infrastructure improvements but it still will come off as a penalty for not using an American gateway. The cargo interests will fight it, probably the railroads, too. And don’t expect the Commerce and State Departments and the White House Trade Representative to be mute on the question.

The valuable but imperfect HMT (title  for another blog entry?) continues to create problems while feasible solutions elude us.  Meanwhile, look to the east. There on the horizon are Nova Scotia ambitions to establish a Rupert-on-the-Atlantic.

The fight against the HMT is 25 years long and counting.  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