Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund’

That Transportation Can Got Kicked Again

In Congress, Infrastructure, Surface Transportation Policy on March 30, 2012 at 11:51 am

Congress this week again extended SAFETEA-LU by approving H.R. 4281, what might reasonably be labeled the kicking-the-can-down-the-road road bill.  This 9th extension buys 90 days of time for the House and Senate to come to terms on a new, surface transportation authorization measure.   And while putting off a decision on a multi-year bill is not favored by stakeholders the alternative—a complete expiration of program authority—would be far more problematic.  (The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee release refers to “a devastating shutdown of highway and bridge projects” if the Senate didn’t follow suit.)

The Senate-passed MAP-21, S. 1813, which garnered 74 votes in that chamber, was touted by Senate and House Democrats as the simple answer to the House Republican Leadership’s unprecedented dilemma of having difficulty amassing sufficient votes to approve a surface transportation bill that was reported from committee nearly 2 months ago. But that short-cut to a final bill was unlikely for reasons including House rules.  House Members approved the extension, through June, by a vote of 266 to 158.  The vote was held off until a couple days before SAFETEA-LU was to expire and legislators are to start a two-week recess to give the Senate side few options other than to take the House extension or risk program shutdowns.

Attempts were made by Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to substitute the short-term H.R. 4281 with her 2-year MAP-21 but her motions failed to win the necessary (to make for speedy consideration) unanimous consent.  Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) objected each time.  If Senator Boxer had succeeded the bill then would have to go back to the House where one might expect it to be blocked, MAP-21’s bipartisan credentials notwithstanding.

That doesn’t mean that the Senate bill doesn’t stand a chance on the House side.  The bill’s co-author is conservative James Inhofe (R-OK) and MAP-21 won the votes of a substantial number of Senate Rs.  And while Inhofe has stayed clear of the “pass MAP-21” chanting another Republican–DOT Secretary Ray LaHood–hasn’t held back.  And there are others.

MAP-21’s urban and rural transit provisions are more to the liking of that sector and while its freight sections are not all that they could have been–major provisions produced in the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee having been left out on the way to passage–those titles have more to recommend than one finds in the House version. Among other things the Projects of National and Regional Significance category is given new life in the Senate bill.  (On the down side, neither bill goes farther than to offer an anemic “sense of” Congress provision on the growing problem of under spending Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund resources on navigation channels.)

So, expect the pressure to build for House action on a version closely resembling the Senate bill  if the Majority continues to struggle in assembling votes for its 5-year version, H.R. 7, the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act.

What now?  Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and John Mica (R-FL), chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, continue their recruitment effort to get sufficient votes to pass H.R. 7.  They face the opposition of many Democrats, which puts much of the onus on the majority side to produce the votes. The lack of earmarks in the bill certainly doesn’t help that but then part of the problem all along has been that the Republican Conference’s many anti-earmark freshmen just have not warmed to the idea of a 5-year, $260 billion dollar transportation bill.

And if you think a 90-day extension actually gives Congress 90 days to find common ground you don’t know Washington math.  There are fewer more than 30 legislative days on the calendar between today and the start of July…when the next extension may be needed.   Pbea

(An earlier version of the above appears on The Ferguson Group Blog at http://thefergusongroup.typepad.com/grants/2012/03/ninety-days-and-counting.html)

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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

Time for a Maritime Title

In Intermodal, Marine Highway, MTS Policy, Surface Transportation Policy, Water Resources on January 30, 2012 at 1:16 am

In a few days we will see if there is a maritime title, or section, in what is traditionally the highway bill.  What’s that, you say?  You heard right.

Back in July 2011  House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) let us peek at the planned contents of the surface transportation bill that finally will get its debut in committee on February 2nd.

That summary, aptly named A New Direction, included a description of maritime transportation provisions, which would have as much symbolic as substantive significance for those of us working the water.  Including a few marine transportation provisions in the once-in-a-decade highway and transit legislation could prove to be a foot-in-the-door for more of the same when the next big surface bill comes along.  (Some of us impertinently suggest that marine transportation in fact is a surface mode…the wet one.)

But one can argue that the foot has been in the door for quite some time.  The passenger-oriented Ferry Boat Discretionary Program has been the lone marine transportation element in surface transportation policy and program since 1991 and the landmark ISTEA. Interestingly, the ferry program is managed by the Federal Highway Administration–a fact that some folks in the Maritime Administration probably still have difficulty acknowledging–because that is where the money is.

John Mica has for years talked about having a transportation “vision” that is intermodal, multimodal and makes greater use of the maritime.  The Chairman’s intentions revealed last year with regard to a maritime title included three basic objectives:

  • Ensure full use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund resources; only 60 percent of annual revenues are appropriated for channel maintenance.
  • Encourage  more maritime related activity including “short-sea shipping” by exempting cargo from the Harbor Maintenance Tax when moving between US ports.
  • Improve Corps of Engineer civil works project delivery.

This week the committee will meet to produce the bill.  There may be a maritime title with some placeholders to be added later.  Here’s what we see in our crystal ball:

  • The Corps project piece is not expected to be in the bill.  Such typical WRDA subject matter may be held back more as a matter of legislative strategy than anything.
  • Jurisdiction over the particular legislative remedy for the HMTF issue–contained in HR 104–is shared with the House Rules Committee where there is opposition to the so-called RAMP approach.  Appropriators are fighting it as well.  If RAMP isn’t included in the bill it won’t be for lack of trying by many stakeholders in the port navigation sector who have encouraged over 150 legislators to co-sponsor.
  • Maybe the topic that has the best chance of getting in the new maritime title is the HMT exemption for non-bulk cargo. But because the subject is within the jurisdiction of the Ways and Means Committee Mica’s transportation panel is expected to defer to the tax committee on bill language (likely to look like HR 1533).  So keep an eye on the Ways and Means hearing to occur this Wednesday. The HMT and HMTF issues will be heard and when that committee later meets to take up the transportation bill’s tax-related provisions we may find the HMT provision added.  (The subject of the vessel tonnage tax also is to be brought up at the Wednesday hearing.)

It looks like a maritime title will have, at best, a couple provisions. But if by the time the surface transportation measure goes to the House floor its 1000 or so pages include a maritime title–maybe only a wet highway provision to go with the dry highway ones–we should take a minute to savor a small provision and an encouraging direction for transportation policy.  Pbea

Next WRDA a Policy Bill?

In Infrastructure, Water Resources on November 3, 2009 at 3:29 pm

WRDAlite2

WRDA (say “wurr-da”) sometimes is an elusive, even mythical, thing.  When it appears out of the Capitol Hill mist–like Brigadoon–it’s not with the reliable–albeit once-in-a-hundred years–clockwork of that fabled village.   It is usually defined as a biennial water resources authorization bill but it rarely takes such predictable, finished form as a president might come to expect on his desk every two years…assuming he wants it there.

Part of WRDA lore (and lure) is that it is tailor made for end-of-congress action on the eve of congressional elections.  Before returning home Members would wrap up the bill and their press releases touting what WRDA holds for their districts.  For, above all, a Water Resources Development Act is a projects bill.  Indeed part of the legend–not without  good reason–is that for WRDA to get through Congress it must be laden with projects.  No projects, no critical mass.  No critical mass, not enough aye votes.

WRDA 2007, the most recent version made law, was propelled in part by the huge Everglades project.  It was not without controversy but as an environmental restoration project the Everglades project gave the bill essential critical mass and acceptability among many in the environmental community which often is critical of project bills.

Legislators submit their wish lists.  Even many Members who disdain the practice of earmarking.  Port channels.  Beach replenishment.  Flood control.  Environmental projects…these ever more so.  They include wastewater treatment, water supply and the like.

The foundation of any WRDA is projects that move “through the pipeline,” much as the Everglades restoration project did.  They are subjected to Federal feasibility and environmental studies and then Secretarial and White House review.  An interminable process to some.  Projects exit the pipeline, usually, as recommendations for formal authorization,  WRDA being the next step in a civil works project’s journey through government.

When it comes to critical mass, it looks as if WRDA 2010 could end up WRDA Lite.  Fewer projects and lower cost.  So far only a couple of projects have emerged from the pipeline.  Some folks suggest we may have more of a WRDA policy bill than a projects bill.  That’s possible.

As one example, ports have wanted the law changed to secure the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.   Harbor Maintenance Tax revenues go into the general treasury and only around 60 percent of the proceeds actually are spent on channel maintenance.   There’s meat for a WRDA.

We will have to see whether there will be sufficient oomph of any sort to power this next WRDA.  We may get a clue later this month.  The House Water Resources & Environment Subcommittee will hold its first WRDA hearing  on November 18th. Pbea