Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘NY/NJ’

Rx: Port Decongestant

In Competition, Government, Port Performance, Ports on April 14, 2016 at 1:14 am

The Secretary of Commerce received recommendations from her department’s Advisory Committee on Supply Chain Competitiveness (ACSCC). The paper: Recommendations to the Secretary of Commerce Regarding US Seaport and Connecting Infrastructure Congestion “for addressing and resolving” the “urgent national topic” of port congestion.

(From the humble perspective of a long time ports advocate in Washington, DC, home of the ten-ring circus, it is gratifying and reassuring that ports can sometimes make it to the spotlight and, even more, qualify as an urgent national topic…whether to the Commerce Secretary or to anyone. Not a bad career choice after all.)

Federal leadership is needed to advance a set of best port congestion reduction practices that the private and public owners and stakeholders of each port can individually adopt as appropriate. Our report contains a number of congestion reduction practices for this purpose. By advancing these practices, the Nation can achieve a comprehensive, holistic reduction in port congestion that improves national competitiveness and economic growth.

The February 4, 2016 transmittal letter to Secretary Penny Pritzker also noted that there is a limit to the role that Washington can play in addressing the issue but wanted to make the most of that role.

However, where Federal Government involvement can directly resolve port congestion issues, or reduce their impacts, Federal action should be swift and decisive.

The nine-page paper was drafted, discussed, and edited by the panel — a formal Federal Advisory Committee — over a good part of the previous year and then was approved at its January meeting. The folks who led the initiative are knowledgeable in freight logistics. And if certain others of the 30 to 40 persons usually present for the meetings had little personal knowledge of what happens in the life of an ocean shipping container it was explained to them.

(This is a good time to note that one sector that did not have a seat at that table is one that could have contributed greatly to the panel’s understanding of port terminal operations — the marine terminal industry. Further note: the newly selected class of ACSCC appointees to the 44 member advisory committee continues the seeming exclusion of representatives of the terminal industry.)

Port congestion, as it has come to be called, is a problem only in a few of the larger US ports but as those international gateways — New York/New Jersey, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Virginia — handle a substantial share of the nation’s cargo, especially imports, slowed cargo throughput is a problem and can be costly to cargo interests and others involved in the port-centered supply chain. It is not that the other ports will never see port congestion. Others likely will, eventually. But even as this “urgent national” port topic has become an issue in Washington, and attracting the attention of multiple Federal agencies, most ports have seen none of the symptoms and few of the causes, of which there are many.

Simplistically, it might be compared to growing pains. Changes are happening to the port, terminal and other elements of the port-centered supply chain. Some of their moving parts are not moving as well as they had been. Cargo volumes are shifting. Shippers are diversifying ports of entry. Larger vessels mean more cargo to load or unload during one vessel call. Terminals were configured for the business of ten years ago. Ocean carriers relinquished ownership of chassis but not full control. A chassis or container depot is not convenient to the terminal. The truck driver makes multiple trips for one load. Drivers are told to to pick up the container when there might be better times to do it. Trucks spend hours in lines, sometimes needlessly. Discouraged drivers exit the business, causing shortages. Roads to the terminal are inadequate for the truck volume. Rail capacity is insufficient. Berths may work around the clock but gates do not because the container is destined for a warehouse not open until eight in the morning.

Throw in some sort of labor dispute (slowdown, etc) or a failure of the computerized terminal operating system and a combination of these factors can make for a quite a mess. The 2014-2015 West Coast experience during protracted labor contract negotiations — with two dozen and more ships at anchor offshore as evidence of the problem onshore — remains vivid in the minds of many whose cargo was slow to get to market and, in the case of farm exports, spoiled. The experience also is a vivid memory for  the people who worked to clear the ships and terminals of containers.

So, yes, there is a problem that some ports have been working to address. Indeed in those named ports multidisciplinary groups were organized to identify and tackle those problems. The first of those was the NY/NJ Port Performance Task Force, which for the implementation phase was succeeded by the Council on Port Performance.

The 2016 recommendations to Secretary Pritzker do not stand alone. In 2014, the Federal Maritime Commission heard stakeholders during four regional listening sessions, and later issued staff reports. The FMC is about to launch what may be its last initiative — Supply Chain Innovation Teams to “develop commercial solutions to supply chain challenges and related port congestion concerns” at the San Pedro Bay ports. In March of this year, the cabinet secretaries of Commerce, Labor and Transportation hosted an invitation-only, “21st century seaports roundtable” that was organized by the White House’s National Economic Council. Bills were introduced on Capitol Hill in 2015 and one — the Port Performance Act — eventually became law. The Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics is now working on implementing the resulting Port Performance Freight Statistics Program. All of which can reasonably be attributed to the lobbying of cargo interests, with the help of trucking, who smarted from the West Coast port mess and wanted to see improvements that included, but not were limited to, workforce issues.

Committee members noted, during the discussion of this Report, that these measures can be used by the ACSCC to help the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop the set of port performance metrics required by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. The Committee also encourages the U.S. Congress to consider additional investment in last-mile infrastructure, new technologies and intelligent systems, and on-dock and near-dock facilities towards reducing U.S. port congestion.

The recommendations of “best practices” delivered to Secretary Pritzker, the details of which you can read here, apply to ocean carriers; terminal operations; port authorities; Federal, State and local government; chassis equipment management; motor carriers; and transportation planners. It is interesting to note that the recommendations apply to just about everyone in the port-related supply chain except the importers and exporters who, as happens, were the principal writers and proponents of the document.

One might wonder if others in the supply chain would have “best practices” to suggest to that shipper community. I think they would.

The Port Performance Task Force report engaged representatives of stakeholders from most aspects of the supply chain and came up with twenty-three recommendations to try to implement. Some of those recommendations, perhaps many, are true challenges, asking competing parties to cooperate in establishing shared solutions such as a truck management system (a.k.a. “appointments”) and chassis pools. Most of the recommendations have little to do with Federal or State government and much to do with improving commercial relationships, embracing new technology, sharing information, adjusting operations, improving communications, and respecting a negotiated labor contract. A few of those are in the recommendations to the Secretary.

The interest of Federal agencies in the port congestion issue is not a bad thing but it is misleading to label it “port congestion.” It is a supply chain problem. Why did the advisory committee recommendations go to the Secretary of Commerce? I suppose the reason is — like the banks to Willie Sutton — because she is there, and the panel exists to advise the Secretary. But as the transmittal letter admits, there is not much that the government can do. Outside of facilitating meetings and providing some assistance in funding infrastructure projects, the lion’s share of the work to be done is there in the supply chain, by the parties that make up the supply chain…and not just at the marine terminal.   Pbea

Word Searching the State of the Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Perspective on Port Dominoes

In Competition, Efficiency, Intermodal, Ports on October 3, 2014 at 12:52 am

A few days ago over 100 people packed a room at high up in Baltimore’s World Trade Center for a day-long forum on “port congestion” convened by the Federal Maritime Commission. It was the second of four planned public meetings–the first was in Los Angeles and the next two will occur in New Orleans and Charleston. The window views from the meeting venues will not be the only differences in what is observed at the four sessions but there are bound to be things in common, too.

The subject of congestion means different things depending on where you are. The severity of the problem also depends on when the post-Panamax ships will arrive in greater numbers to the Gulf and on the East Coast.

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach qualify as Congestion Central if only as a matter of volume and a PierPass system that is working only too well. Some of what they are experiencing could be visited upon the Port of New York/New Jersey in less two years’ time when the Panama Canal gives way to the big ships and if certain problems are not fixed by that time. But that does not mean New York Harbor isn’t experiencing head-throbbing congestion today. Name the problem or snafu and the bistate port has experienced it like punches to the gut. So much so that it did not take much convincing to get terminals, truckers, shippers, labor, carriers and others in the room and agree to hold hands and embark on a waterfront version of a 12-step program.

Norfolk may have 50-feet of water to suit, first, colliers and now big box ships but it also is scrambling to have infrastructure and systems ready in a couple years. Truck and terminal-related problems prompted Norfolk’s own come-to-jesus/how-can-we-fix-this? process. Like other ports the problem is more on land than in the water. The concern isn’t about ships scraping bottom but about terminals getting stuck without a chassis or with too many ships and too little in the way of equipment, labor, trucks or gates. It helps that the Vice President brought a $15 million TIGER grant to Norfolk last week to help pay for improvements to gates and last-mile infrastructure over the next few years.

In the South Atlantic the stories and problems will sound a bit different, as they will in the Gulf. Ports there undoubtedly will paint favorable comparisons to their troubled brethren to the north in a sort of Alfred E. Newman way–“What, me congested?”–and not without reason. But there the trucking and chassis management problems may be only in early stages of development and more of the big ships (and perhaps big-ship-challenges) may be in their future. In fact they are counting on it.

A perspective on the problems facing terminals recently appeared in the Journal of Commerce. The opinion piece by John Crowley, Executive Director of the National Association of Waterfront Employers (NAWE, a client) was cited at the FMC forum by Bill Shea, CEO of Direct ChassisLink (DCLI) in its enumeration of congestion-inducing factors that are in play to one extent or another at U.S. container ports. Crowley pointed to 12 factors including the bunching of ship arrivals, larger ships and cargo discharges, local traffic congestion, terminal capacity and gate hours, truck driver decisions, labor shortages, and even severe weather such as has been seen in the Gulf and more recently from Superstorm Sandy. Most of those were mentioned by speakers at the Baltimore session this week.

Crowley’s piece speaks to the fact that the symptoms of what is being called port congestion are seen throughout much of the intermodal supply chain, which is to say, not just right there at the marine terminal. “The intermodal freight system…consists of market-based industry segments. There are pressures aimed at making each segment more operationally efficient and increasingly productive. It’s a system of nonstop competition, hypersensitive economics and narrow margins. We see it in the increasing size of container ships, the investments made in marine terminal technology and capacity,” etc. “The market determines demands on price and service levels from the modal carriers which, in turn is felt throughout the supply chain and by all modal carriers. Situated in the midst of those demands are marine terminals that strive for each modal operation – marine, rail and truck – to be roughly in sync.”

John Crowley “encourages all industry sectors to collaborate, as much as practicable and permissible under law, to arrive at solutions that will serve their mutual interests… Our operators rely on each mode to similarly commit. Solutions may not come as easily and swiftly as we all would like, but they will have to come about through adaptation in the marketplace by the principal actors in the intermodal freight system…” He calls for government policies that foster market solutions where possible. “We welcome positive and appropriate federal involvement that contributes to solutions but will resist unproductive, regulatory intrusions into terminal operations and where even well-intended government involvement will only frustrate the development of market solutions.” Find the full piece here.

Those views were also heard by the folks in the crowded 21st floor meeting room in Baltimore.  The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s Rick Larrabee described one of the guiding principals in the formation of the Port Performance Task Force 10 months ago. The port’s stakeholders had to be willing to “look inside” for answers as much to look to others in the port to fix the problems. Few of those problems stand alone. A line of dominoes is not the perfect metaphor but it will do. The trucker’s dilemma, for example, is one that is felt and affected by other actors in the supply chain. The companies and drivers have something to contribute but without changes in other sectors the drayage problems will become more severe; the congestion will worsen.

Dire predictions underscored the calls for solutions.

Collective efforts formed to tackle problems in the ports of San Pedro Bay, New York Harbor and Hampton Roads and as a result there is reason for optimism. But as several people told the FMC commissioners this week, we will have a rough year or two, starting this winter, until those solutions are implemented by the principal actors in the port marketplace.

Meanwhile, the FMC will hold its forums. The commissioners and staff are taking notes and those will emerge in some form of a report. It is good for the government to be alert to what is going on at the nation’s gateways and the problems of the freight logistics system. That agency may even decide to take some action to the extent its limited jurisdiction allows. But it is up to the chassis, terminal, truck, ship, rail and distribution center operators and the beneficial cargo owners ultimately to figure out how to make things work better.   Pbea


Do something. But not just anything.

In Government on May 2, 2014 at 12:34 pm

I took perverse pleasure in the breaking stories on the GW Bridge screw-up last fall. They seemed to promise that glaring lights would be aimed at the problem that has been consuming the nationally prominent, first-ever American public authority. Something needed to be done. Maybe this would be the tipping point.

Six months later, there is reason for optimism.

The subject of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and the utter mess that the 93 year old agency finds itself in has been on my mind for many years; the seeds of the problem were sown quite some time ago. It’s just that by this time the sprouted weeds, not invisible if one were looking, have grown thick to the point of crippling and discrediting a once very creditable institution.

A once sought-after model for other public authorities, one that recovered admirably from the most destructive and tragic foreign attacks on American soil is now associated with political abuse, patronage, vindictiveness, and incompetence and scandal that has been a constant source of headlines since November 2013. But the blame cannot be limited to persons of the Christie Administration who took it upon themselves to play traffic doctor and “study” how to turn a town’s congestion into paralytic pneumonia.

My interest in the subject is easily explained and offered as a disclaimer. Jersey bred and a student of government, I was once an employee. A fair number of former colleagues–smart, dedicated, and weary-from-what-ails-the-agency professionals–are still on duty there. I joined the Port Authority in 1980 and remained for over 25 years. We of a certain age witnessed its rapid change from a vigorous, highly ambitious and self-confident agency, especially when it came to tackling regional economic problems, to being heavily politicized and lacking sufficient resources both to maintain adequate staffing and to meet mounting capital and maintenance requirements.

The foundation is still sound, but major structural repairs are needed and the sooner the better. And not in the way the governor of New Jersey may be thinking.

The Port Authority stopped spinning gold for New York and New Jersey several decades ago. External conditions having to do with the economy, changes in the region’s population and commuter choices, and the demands both of aging infrastructure and of ambitious governors put agency revenues on a downward slope and its capital spending on an uphill path. It faced great  challenges, but nothing that couldn’t be managed.

In its colorful history, well documented in James Doig’s Empire on the Hudson, the Port Authority has been far from perfect, but it had served as a model for other states and municipalities searching for ways to manage essential public services. It has been the principal entity to provide New Jersey and New York with a regional framework of public works serving the daily commuter as well as interstate and foreign commerce. With steel, fiber optic cable and the pooling of its revenues for mostly transportation projects, it strengthened and bridged the metropolitan area’s borderless common interest.

Politicians are inclined to see borders as bright dividing lines. Many office holders like to see and use those lines as defensive moats or walls from which to lob obstructions and insults to the other side. Over the years the Port Authority itself has been the target, especially of mayors whose towns host its bothersome facilities. (Rudy Giuliani found nothing to like there and tilted at the agency with borderline animus.) Governors, on the other hand, have known it as a resource.

As recent articles have detailed, and as agency employees have known for years, the precipitous institutional decline in the agency and in the morale of its workers can be pegged to George Pataki’s decisions soon he took office in 1995. He and other conservatives employed a mantra reflecting the Ronald Reagan theme that government is the problem and that the private sector has the solution.

Public employees were denigrated and their jobs eliminated. In their place were private sector contracts. (Consulting, a profession where I now reside, took off in a big way as Federal, State and Municipal agencies were made to hire outsiders who were presumed to be more expert and cheaper than public employees.) Why have a law department when you can hire a law firm? Why have engineers and architects on the payroll when you can hire a name corporation? Perchance, did favoritism ever play a role in privatization? You tell me.

Governor Pataki, as is documented, showed his ideological stripes–and perhaps his indifference–early by naming George Marlin, a failed Conservative Party candidate and portfolio manager as Executive Director in charge of an agency with close to 10,000 employees. Governor Christie Whitman objected, but ultimately went along with the appointment by exacting some insurance. She got to name the Deputy Executive Director. One can hardly blame her; however it only served to accelerate the regional agency’s decline by starting the bifurcation of the executive offices of the Port Authority and more intimate levels of decision-making through the taut strings that ran back to Trenton and Albany.

Marlin lasted two years; the damage to the agency’s planning capacity and staff morale, among other things, however, was lasting.

Then came the events of 2001, not to forget the bombing of 1993. The emotional hit within the organization was inestimable, starting with the loss of 84 Port Authority civilian and uniformed personnel, including its capable executive director. (How the surviving workers enabled the huge, and financially significant organization immediately to relocate headquarters staff to maintain operations, recover and quickly pivot into heightened, anti-terror security initiatives deserves its own telling.) The toll on agency finances, both in terms of revenue and the costs associated with recovery and the largely political decisions as to how to manage the World Trade Center site was immediate and continues to this day.

Fast forward to today.

While the George Washington Bridge incident is scandalous, it is not a Port Authority scandal. It is a New Jersey Governor’s Office scandal. Fundamentally, it also is a New York governor’s and Board of Commissioners’ scandal.

It is not the result of Port Authority professionals run amok. It is the consequence of one governor after another, Democrat and Republican, drawing an ever deeper red line and effectively saying, “my commissioners and I will do what we want to do on my side of the line.” Regardless of cost. Regardless of whether it is a credible Port Authority mission or within the long-established geographic scope of the Port District. A rail extension in the Meadowlands. An airport in Atlantic City. A crumbling Skyway. A substitute for a bankrupt state transportation trust fund. And that’s just in New Jersey.

This is a good time to mention something that isn’t being said enough. Nothing of any political or economic consequence is decided at a high level in the Port Authority without the implied or direct consent of the governors or through their proxies at the Port Authority or in the governors’ offices. If it had to do with something on the New Jersey side, it was allowed or caused by a Christie, a Corzine, a McGreevey. If a project was approved in New York, it was okayed by a Cuomo, a Spitzer, a Paterson.  If a press release was written, well… So it can be very misleading when a major action—and this is not intended as a reference to Bridgegate—is described as “the Port Authority” did something or decided another. This is deliciously illustrated by the most recent and messy toll hike, the details of which I will leave to The Record.

By their actions a good many governors dismissed the formative notion that an independent public authority is needed to foster and serve the bistate common interest. They strayed from the classic boardroom model and the thoughtfully limited, statutorily set, gubernatorial power to veto board actions. They enjoyed the privilege of political patronage. Patronage may have had its start with George Pataki and Christie Whitman, but what succeeding governor didn’t want to put his own people in nicely salaried jobs, even if those jobs had to be created? The genie was let out of the bottle.

David Wildstein may be an extreme illustration of what can result from doling out patronage and power. We shouldn’t assume it is limited to him and others appointed by Governor Christie but let’s keep the spotlight there for a moment. By all telling in recent years Wildstein was a noxious, destabilizing presence that employees and persons outside the agency found threatening, which is as he wanted. Wildstein and Bill Baroni—himself, notorious for his performance before a US Senate committee—were two of perhaps several persons who were placed in positions of authority and did real damage. Whatever legitimate accomplishments they might have achieved along the way, they bruised and helped bring about early ends to the careers of responsible professionals at the agency.

As it happens, some of those Christie people now find themselves at the curb—fired or resigned. Some facing litigation. Some saving face.

Governor Christie suggests maybe it’s time to split up the agency. But that would only finish the bifurcation of the agency. It also would complete the corruption of the original intent to establish a public authority that plans, builds and invests in public works with a little separation from the election-oriented office holders. If we have learned anything it is that the recent revelations point to the need for just that kind of separation.

Instead of splitting the baby, Governor Christie and the inscrutably silent Governor Andrew Cuomo should take to heart the views of Professor Jameson Doig, RPA chief Robert Yaro, and former Port Authority executives Peter GoldmarkDick LeoneMartin Robins, among other experienced and thoughtful persons. They should also listen to Chuck Schumer. Yes, that Chuck Schumer.

A panel recently was formed by the current Board of Commissioners to explore reform ideas. In a speech on April 28th, the Senator invited the Port Authority leadership to consider his proposed reforms and come up with any additional ones for consideration in Congress, where the Port Authority Compact was first approved in 1921.

In his “seven point plan” are guidelines for the selection and responsibilities of the Port Authority commissioners and executive director, who should have “full managerial authority and responsibility for “the entire Port Authority organization.”

That very basic reform can get at the root of the problem, but it wouldn’t get at the problem of whether a bad or indifferent governor is in office. That’s a problem for the electorate. But it can help return the Port Authority to having leadership that has “a fiduciary duty” to the agency and full managerial responsibility. Maybe it even will be possible to stuff that patronage genie back into the bottle.

And that is why I was happy to hear how traffic came to a standstill in Fort Lee.   Pbea

The Late Senator Frank Lautenberg

In Congress, Environment, Federal Government, Leadership, MTS Policy, New York Harbor, Politics, Ports, Security, Surface Transportation Policy, Water Resources on June 9, 2013 at 11:53 pm


Senator Frank Lautenberg
1924 – 2013

Last Friday was a somber day of steady rain as New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. News reports this past week cited how his passing was notable because he was the last sitting senator of the “greatest generation,” that chamber’s last veteran of World War II. His death came just months after Hawaii’s Senator Daniel Inouye, a wounded veteran of that war, took his resting place among the nation’s noted military and civilian leaders at Arlington.

(They also had a common  interest in the MTS—the marine transportation system. Inouye was a reliable and principal advocate for American shipping; Lautenberg for the landside elements—the ports and intermodal connections. Both were friends of labor.)

It need be said that Senator Lautenberg’s death on June 3, also is notable because it marked the passing of a champion of Federal policy to making communities healthier, the environment cleaner, and industry and travel safer and better. It was a personal agenda well suited to his home State of New Jersey but carried out with no less than the nation in mind.

In his 28 years as a senator he served on virtually every committee and subcommittee that touched on authorizing and funding transportation, civil works and environmental policy. For a period he chaired the Transportation Subcommittee on Appropriations while as a senior member of the Environment & Public Works Committee (EPW).  For a few years after the attack of September 2001 he also was on the Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee. In recent years he chaired the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine, Infrastructure, Safety and Security Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee (CST). In recent years he served on EPW, CST and Appropriations, including the Corps funding subcommittee, concurrently.

As was evident in his committee work his approach to legislating was to cover all the bases, or at least as many as he could. He championed improving airports and the aviation system, expanding the use of transit and passenger rail, modernizing freight transportation, bringing American port infrastructure to world standards, and securing them all from the those who would do us harm.

He was appointed to the President’s Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism after the tragic downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and returned to the Senate, after a two-year hiatus, to help write and oversee anti-terrorism law after the downing of the World Trade Center towers. In those towers he had served on the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey before being elected senator in 1982. His time with the Port Authority–and his building the Automatic Data Processing Corporation (ADP) from scratch–were credits on his resume in which he took great pride and enjoyed telling people about if the occasion would allow.

Frank Lautenberg put much effort into environmental issues. He gave his attention to the recovery of old industrial wastelands through brownfields initiatives and Superfund legislation and to making the Toxic Substances Control Act more effective. He was protecting the coastline whether the recreation beaches or the nurturing marshlands. In his last year he walked the Jersey Shore in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, secured bi-partisan support for his toxic substances legislation and, from his wheel chair, cast his final vote in support of tighter gun legislation.

He was a tough fellow and could be an relentless advocate.  Just ask the trucking industry that couldn’t budge him from the centerline where he stood in the way of increasing truck size and weight limits year after year after year. Ask the FAA whose employees’ merit increases were at risk while their work was incomplete on the redesign of East Coast airspace in the Newark/LaGuardia/JFK market. Ask Norfolk Southern and CSX who found the Senator immovable on key issues pertaining to assuring competitive rail service for his home port when Conrail’s assets were on the block. Was he always the advocate that some of us wanted him to be? No, but then you rarely find a senator who is that agreeable.

From start-to-finish Senator Frank Lautenberg was an advocate for his New Jersey and his United States, which he strove to make  better by improving the quality of people’s lives and the means of commerce.    Pbea

(A version of this ran on The Ferguson Group blog.)


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

Mapping the “Hidden Highway”

In Infrastructure, Marine Highway, New York Harbor on November 13, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Click for Audio

When someone talks about “keeping ships from turning into shipwrecks” we all probably could agree that’s a worthwhile use of tax dollars.

The fellow whose job it has been to map the coastal waters where ships ply the “hidden highway” is Captain Steve Barnum, who retired this year NOAA after 29 years.  He most recently headed NOAA’s Coast Survey, part of the National Ocean Service (NOS).

If you click the image above, you’ll hear him talk about the valuable service provided by the folks at NOS:

  • the country has “95,000 linear nautical miles of shoreline…3.4 square nautical miles of underwater territory” half of which was last mapped using “lead line soundings”…
  • mapping of the coastline is “a continual process”…many parts of the coastal regions remain uncharted…some data is as old as the Russian survey from when that country controlled Alaska
  • coastal surveys are also important for national security…military operations need accurate nautical charts…having a baseline makes it easier to reopen waterways after a national emergency
  • the MTS is the “hidden highway”…“hidden transportation system”
  • nautical charts are essential to the growth of the “efficient”  marine highway…making use of the “underutilized waterways” to get trucks off the road

The captain mistakenly refers to the Verrazano Bridge as an impediment for the increasingly larger ships–it’s the Bayonne Bridge, both being in the Port of New York-New Jersey–but he is right to highlight that commercial shipping is no different than other modes in needing adequate infrastructure and mapping.  In the case of  bridges, another NOS navigation system–PORTS–enables ship pilots to know the air draft under bridges in addition to better understanding available channel depth.  It’s just that when the highway is “hidden,” as the water routes are, it doesn’t get the attention–and the resources–that the dryways get.   Pbea

The MPO Role in AMH

In Marine Highway on September 26, 2009 at 10:34 pm


The Marine Highway effort took a big step forward,maybe three years ago, when former MARAD Administrator Sean Connaughton traveled to Little Rock for the annual meeting of the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations.  MPOs are the regional transportation planning entities responsible for developing Transportation Improvement Plans and selecting projects for Federal funding.  They consist of local government and transportation agencies including State DOTs.  The interest that an MPO shows in freight transportation depends on how well ports and other freight stakeholders engage their local MPO.

Connaughton, a former county official in Virginia, understood the role of MPOs and the Federal resources they have to support projects.  He knew also that most MPOs understood little or nothing about short sea shipping or most any form of marine transportation.  If transportation planners were to give consideration to coastal or inland shipping in addressing transportation needs they would first have to know it exists…and is relevant.

When MARAD later issued for comment the interim final rule for the America’s Marine Highway (AMH) program the notice effectively alerted transportation agencies that a new program was to begin.  Input was invited for the naming of marine highway corridors.  The response has brought to light many projects and a level of interest that previously had not been known.  (MARAD is expected to issue final rules for the program later this year and formally solicit project proposals early next year.)  Enter NYMTC.

An effort is underway by planners in the New York Metro region to gauge interest in the budding marine highway program.  NYMTC, the New York City and Long Island MPO, has scheduled a meeting for September 29th.  (See the “downloadable files” on the left menu of NYMTC site and find “America’s Marine Highways” on drop-down list.)   All are welcome to participate and one can view the meeting online.

According to Howie Mann of NYMTC the agency has reached out to neighboring MPOs–an important step because marine highway corridors inevitably extend beyond the limits of one or more MPOs.  Like the 64 Express project on the James River, undertaken by Barbara Nelson of the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission since that Little Rock meeting, these steps by NYMTC will add to public and institutional understanding and should prove useful.

Note:  If you are curious to know more about reginoal transportation planning and the MPO role, here is a worthwhile read about The History of Metropolitan Planning Organizations.   Pbea

A Decent Man and Industry Leader

In Leadership on September 14, 2009 at 1:03 pm
Bill DeCota  (source:

Bill DeCota (source:

Bill DeCota was not someone you would have met in the MTS world.  He didn’t know ships, but he appreciated that there could be a role for marine transportation at his facilities.  He didn’t know freight rail, but he knew that rail is an essential component in intermodal transportation.  He may have never set foot on a container terminal, but he understood the importance of efficient goods movement.

Bill DeCota knew airports and aviation.

On September 11th, as his colleagues at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey were re-living the tragedy of eight years before, Bill passed away at age 51.

For nearly ten years Bill DeCota headed the agency’s Aviation Department.  LaGuardia, Newark, Kennedy, Teterboro, and now Stewart.  He joined the Port Authority in 1982 as a financial analyst and well before his untimely death he had earned the respect of his staff and industry leaders.

Like other highly competent persons Bill could have left public service for greater financial reward in the private sector.  Instead he close to work to improve the country’s busiest and highly complex passenger and freight airport system in the high-pressure, floodlit New York metro region.  The region and his employer were prime beneficiaries of his talent.  Anyone who didn’t fully appreciate that fact when he was alive surely will come understand it in his absence.

He had impressive intellectual capacity, lived his work 24/7, had great integrity, demanded no less of himself as he did  of his staff.  He was a national leader  in the industry.  He probably was without peer in his command of the  statistical and financial minutiae.  He was a man of good humor and enjoyed his own, frequent quips.  And as an added gift Bill was a genuinely good guy.  He was friend and colleague to people, myself included, regardless of rank.  Patty Clark of his staff said of Bill: “He had as much concern for the busboy at his dinner, as he did for his long term friends.  The caring and concern which were the hallmark of his life, he eschewed when directed at himself.”

It is the transportation world’s loss that he is gone.   Pbea

“All Available Boats”

In New York Harbor on September 10, 2009 at 5:16 pm
Thanks to Carolina Salguero (

Thanks to Carolina Salguero (

“On Friday morning, September 11, 2009, ferries will come from the north, south and west to gather on the Hudson River at the mouth of North Cove. They will pause, bobbing, and all will turn to face the empty eastern sky over the World Financial Center. At 10:29am, they will sound their horns, a mournful chord of remembrance that notes the fall of the second World Trade Center tower.” (from the “Spiritual Sustenance at the Water’s Edge” article in the recent WaterWire newsletter of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance)

Tomorrow we will remember.

Persons in earshot of the “mournful chord” will be reminded of the masters, pilots, mates, captains, deckhands, and boaters who responded to the call that day: “All available boats.”   They may have heard the Coast Guard call or just knew in their guts what they had to do.

“In response to the emerging need for transportation, boats of all descriptions converged on Manhattan,” said Tricia Wachtendorf, Assistant Professor at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, in a school publication. “Some acted quite independently. Others sought permission from the Coast Guard, who initially instructed vessels first to stand by, then to position themselves in readiness before issuing its request for all available boats to participate in the evacuation.”

John Snyder of wrote of the response by some of the more familiar New York Harbor vessel names.  “Because of their bow-loading design, NY Waterway’s ferries were pressed into service as waterborne ambulances. The vessels were used to medivac injured firefighters across the Hudson to Colgate. In all, NY Waterway ferries carried about 2,000 injured.”All Available Boats book

All Available Boats: Harbor Voices from 911 is a radio documentary by David Tarnow.   Kimberly Gochberg, a sailing coach at Kings Point, is one of several voices providing their accounts.  An illustrated book on the subject, All Available Boats, edited by Mike Magee, memorialized the maritime element that day.  A gift from my colleagues, the volume is a tangible reminder to page slowly through.

That morning the John J. Harvey, a retired NYPD fireboat went into action.  It is a small photograph but it’s not difficult to see the deck crowded to capacity with people being ferried from Lower Manhattan.  Co-owner Huntley Gill tells that story.  The vessel a metaphor for age mattering little when one can lend a hand.  An interview by Amy Eddings shines a useful light on the unanticipated urban design issue of waterfront infrastructure lacking as basic a detail as a cleat on which to tie a line.

“The mainstream press missed a major story about 9/11–the maritime role.”  Carolina Salguero posted in 2008 a fascinating account on her PortSide Mary Whalen blog.  Salguero, whose life is centered on the working waterfront, is a  professional photographer (her work is highlighted at top) who raced to Lower Manhattan by boat.   “When Debby and I approached the Battery, thousands of citizens were crammed along the seawall. As I left ground zero on the tug Nancy Moran only 2 or 3 hours later, there were none; all evacuated by boat in what was a spontaneous, civilian-initiated operation.”  Salguero’s website is worth a visit.  (Look for “maritime 9/11” and then follow the links to for interviews, images, and video.)

The photographs of that day couldn’t capture the full measure of vessels that responded that day.  But we know who they are. Pbea