USDOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) issued “America’s Container Ports: Freight Hubs That Connect Our Nation to Global Markets.” It’s a look at the container trade in 2008 and it’s effect on US ports. The stats, including the early years of containerization, are sliced, diced and tapped for potentially usable information.
In February House Transportation Chair Jim Oberstar (D-MN) pledged periodic progress reports on the spending of ARRA, a.k.a. economic stimulus, appropriations for transportation projects. Transportation related appropriations in the $750 billion stimulus package totalled $48.1 billion. On June 25, 2009 subcommittee Peter DeFazio (D-OR) chaired the oversight hearing as to how well USDOT and the grant recipients have managed the transportation pot 120-days since enactment of ARRA. As of June 15, USDOT reported that $47.5 billion was “announced” and $17.5 billion has been obligated. Progress has been made on implementing the highly anticipated multimodal TIGER discretionary grants that is a new program managed in the Secretary’s office. The $1.5 billion in grants will be awarded by next February; applications are due in September. The link takes you to the taped hearing.
Rep. Laura Richardson (D-CA) apparently returned to Congress in January convinced she had a basically sound idea when the very new congresswoman from Long Beach introduced a bill last year to pay for port-related goods movement infrastructure projects with a $20/TEU container tax. Of the revenue, 90% would go to freight related projects mostly within 40 miles of port, 7% would be allocated to projects mitigating environmental “damage,” and 3% would support homeland security projects. When she introduced HR 2355—the MOVEMENT Act—in May 2009 she did so with some tweaks. Most significantly is a switch of the revenue mechanism from a container tax to existing Harbor Maintenance Tax and with a leap from its current 0.125% of cargo value to 0.4375%. The 0.3125% increase would be dedicated to this new purpose. The basic intent of the bill to provide resources for gateway related infrastructure is a good one but venturing into HMT territory is a descent into troubled waters. By all indications the U.S. port sector and the shippers who would pay the tax think the bill is flawed, some think it seriously so. Then there is the risk of triggering a complaint to the WTO by U.S. trading partners. Meanwhile advocates of a fix to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund see only complications with the proposed tampernig of a Federal charge that today is not fully utilized for the unmet demands of port navigation infrastructure. In its current form, the bill is unlikely to garner support to let it move. - Pbea
The Freight Stakeholders Coalition “believes that the next surface transportation autohrization bill must maintain a strong federal role and provide for the creation of a national freight program.” With that as their starting point the coalition hammered out 10 planks in their platform, skipping the issues of fees and whether there should be a freight trust fund. It’s a pretty good consensus document for a rather broad based group representing twenty public and private sector associations, coalitions and industry groups, one of which is a client. - Pbea
Adam Smith—no, different guy—reintroduced his proposal for a charge on the cost of moving freight in the U.S. The Democrat congressman, who can see the Port of Tacoma from his home, would raise revenue from the equivalent of a 1 percent tax on ground transportation moves beyond 50 miles. Like competing fee schemes introduced by other Members the receipts in Smith’s bill would go toward making freight related infrastructure improvements. None of the three bills tossed in so far are palatable to the freight community but some see Smith’s as being a bit more reasoned. - Pbea
Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced S. 1308, which includes a section that would fill a gap in the still new Short Sea Transportation program (see the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, Public Law 110-140). The Maritime Administration is reviewing comments filed in response to the interim final regulations for the program through which the DOT Secretary will designate marine highway corridors and select projects. The gap is a funding provision to provide tangible financial support for marine highway projects that eventually are selected as worthy of Federal endorsement. See section twelve in the bill, which was introduced a few days ago. Lautenberg chairs the subcommittee of jurisdiction. - Pbea
“…Oberstar told BNA that the White House’s plan is “terribly detrimental” and “irresponsible.” Oberstar said… [he] did not expect [House] leadership to try to oppose his ambitious agenda. (Source: BNA)”—This is strong rhetoric aimed at the White House. The respective stances of the Administration and the House transporation chairman are not surprising, but these words do have a sharpness that if anything reminds us that the prerogatives of institutions and the priority agendas of leaders don’t take a back seat to party allegiance. For quite some time Oberstar has aimed to put his stamp on a major restructuring of the failing surface transportation policy. Indeed he and the White House likely agree to a great extent on major elements of a new policy. But the White House calculus in calling for an 18 month delay on the issue—thus postponing a politically taxing tax debate—appears to have little to do with the imperative to solve significant policy and program problems (although one can see the benefit of allowing certain policy discussions to ripen a bit more). The proposed postponement has everything to do with everything else that is on the White House agenda. ~ Let’s acknowledge that transportation just doesn’t rise anywhere near the top of the tall stack of do-now issues in the Oval Office. Furthermore I’m not sure the trillions in the economic recovery package are an indicator of a president’s strong interest in transportation. It was a means to pump money into the economy and create jobs. As it happened, it also gave him an opportunity to put a personal imprint on transportation through his initiative on hi-speed rail. ~ It’s terrific that he is pressing to upgrade and increase passenger rail service in the US. But if that and “livable communities”—also a very important objective—end up being the highlights of the president’s term as it regards transportation initiatives then the search may continue for a successor to Eisenhower. But let’s not abandon hope just yet. - Pbea
The unveiling of T&I Chairman Jim Oberstar’s [TEA] bill had competition for ink. Former House colleague and DOT Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday proposed that instead of tackling the full $450B authorization bill Congress should:
Extend SAFETEA-LU for 18 months | Adopt some reforms | Hold off raising the gas tax.
There is political wisdom in the Administration’s position. The failing Highway Trust Fund notwithstanding it’s not a propitious time to raise taxes. Besides Congress already faces a daunting agenda, pressed by the White House to tackle healthcare, finance sector reform, economic recovery, and climate change first. LaHood’s stance was endorsed yesterday by Senate EPW Chair Barbara Boxer, whose committee wasn’t going to produce its version any time soon anyway. But Oberstar is consistent and persistent. He has been building toward this time and is raring to go. As far as he is concerned Congress should get it done in time for SAFETEA-LU’s expiration (Sept30) and he will get his bill out this summer. And, not coincidentally, he will plant the first stake as to new policy in this era that some hope will become the Transportation Reformation. (It will take at least ninety-five theses to get us back to ISTEA.) — Pbea
"The preamble to ISTEA  said that our goal should be “to develop a National Intermodal Transportation System that is environmentally sound, provides the foundation for the Nation to compete in the global economy and will move people and goods in an energy efficient manner.” Its language is still refreshing 18 years later. What is striking about it is that it doesn’t mention individual modes but focuses policymakers’ and the public’s attentions on moving people and goods—the reason transportation exists in the first place.” - Steven Van Beek, Eno Transportation Foundation
"Concern about intermodal issues was a constant theme in our outreach meetings during the [Obama] transition…. The symbolism of dropping the “I” from ISTEA was not lost on many. While returning it might create an unworkable acronym, the spirit needs to be there. Perhaps the next bill should update the ISTEA preamble and policy statement—and maybe we should even do what Senator Moynihan always wanted done, and post that policy statement in every DOT office. Short of that, the Department’s leadership should refocus on the principle of One DOT and the primacy of looking at the needs of passengers and freight, not the shape of programs and funding.” - Mort Downey
"A simple example of how we have fallen short — a debate exists today over whether highway and road signing should universally reflect multimodal choices that travelers can take.” - Rich Sarles, NJ Transit
"But the bigger question is - intermodal enough for what? What are we hoping intermodalism will help us achieve? And how will we know when we’ve gotten there?" - Susan Zielinski, SMART, UMich
The National Journal asked “Are We Intermodal Enough Yet?” The replies are predictibly in the negative and also instructive. The National Journal transportation “experts” blog is worth an occasional visit. - Pbea
"These principles mean that we will all be working off the same playbook to formulate and implement policies and programs. For the first time, the Federal government will speak with one voice on housing, environmental and transportation policy," said the HUD Secretary about the Obama Administration’s "sustainable communities" agreement between USDOT, HUD and EPA.
That’s good…now how about within the transportation family? The new and laudable interagency agreement makes us wonder again if someday the USDOT member agencies—particularly the modal administrations—will adopt and practice intermodal principles and a mechanism for coordination. "A framework to guide decisions," to borrow from the EPA Administrator’s quote. House Transportation chair Jim Oberstar (D-MN) is intent on forcing modal coordination in the next TEA bill. Maybe Secretary LaHood will come up with his own approach. But it would have to be one that can overcome a fair measure of skepticism in and outside the department about the feasibility of a one-DOT approach. (Is there such a thing as an intra-agency memorandum of agreement?) — Pbea
"Recession or no recession, our nation desperately needs to update infrastructure that lags behind that of even some developing countries. But it is also true that a recession is the perfect time to put money into long-term investments like massive public-works projects because it creates jobs while pumping up our economy. It’s like hitting two homeruns with one swing. FDR knew that when he created the New Deal." Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Building Back", Newsweek, December 17, 2008
"But alas, there’s no evidence so far that the Obama infrastructure plan is attached to any larger social vision. In fact, there is a real danger that the plan will retard innovation and entrench the past."
David Brooks of the NYT is right to look for the Obama Administration to put a social context—enhancing community, for instance—to the billions in infrastructure investments that Congress will approve in the first months of the new administration. That is detail—a policy framework—we hope will come from the president-elect. It can start in general terms with the stimulus package and then be given finer detail in the surface transportation proposal. Pbea
"Through the National Strategy, the CMTS will communicate information about challenges that need to be addressed to improve the MTS and ensure that policies and actions of its Agencies are synchronized, coordinated with other policy facilitation structures such as the Committee on Ocean Policy, focused on the future, and targeted to the most critical issues."
A positive action taken by the Bush Administration in the area of the port/maritime sector was the creation of the cabinet level Committee for the Marine Transportation System. The newly released “national strategy” framework by the CMTS considers the MTS condition and recommends action in eight areas ranging from promotion of the Marine Highway to environmental sustainability. Pbea
"As I sat in my seat at the Bird’s Nest, watching thousands of Chinese dancers, drummers, singers and acrobats on stilts perform their magic at the closing ceremony, I couldn’t help but reflect on how China and America have spent the last seven years: China has been preparing for the Olympics; we’ve been preparing for Al Qaeda. They’ve been building better stadiums, subways, airports, roads and parks. And we’ve been building better metal detectors, armored Humvees and pilotless drones." Thomas Friedman column: “A Biblical Seven Years” NYT, August 26, 2008
Bang-for-the-Buck Facts: 1) We buy ourselves many levels of long term security by investing in essential infrastructure. 2) There are limits to how secure from terrorism we can make ourselves. Pbea
Horizon Lines chief Chuck Raymond points to the need for changes in Federal transportation policy that includes marine highways and a tiered port structure. He sees a marine highway system consisting of the inland waterways, long haul coastwise Ro/Ro service, and a “coastwise container feeder network” to give freight and international cargo water route alternatives to the congested highway system. His article appeared in the July 2008 issue of www.MarineLog.com.
…this transportation bill should not be a “reauthorization” of the existing approach but should be a “new authorization” replete with new policies and funding strategies. Steve Van Beek, Eno Transportation Foundation
Steve’s piece is a succinct discussion of why the next surface transportation authorization bill must be more than a “reauthorization” of existing program and policy and what it will take to get a bill done in Congress. Warmed up SAFETEA-LU won’t satisfy a nation starved for 21st century transportation and infrastructure.
"As new priorities emerge, policymakers have demonstrated interest in user fees as a means of financing new and existing services. User fees can be designed to reduce the burden on taxpayers to finance the portions of activities that provide benefits to identifiable users above and beyond what is normally provided to the public. By charging the costs of those programs or activities to beneficiaries, user fees can also promote economic efficiency and equity. However, to achieve these goals, user fees must be well designed." GAO Report of May 2008
"…an urgent reality: If the U.S. government continues with its current transportation policies, it will undermine the social and economic security of our workforce and accelerate global climate change." Washington Post Op-Ed by Judith Rodin, President, The Rockefeller Foundation
This page on the railroad’s “Carbon Footprint Analyzer” webpage gives shippers a way to compare the carbon footprint of their current, non-rail shipping practices to those if they were to use trailers on rail or railcars.
"Surface transportation programs need to be reexamined in the context of the nation’s current unsustainable fiscal path."
"Modally-stovepiped funding can impede efficient planning and project selection…"
"With the sustainability and performance issues of current programs, it is an opportune time for Congress to more clearly define the federal role in transportation and improve progress toward specific, nationally-defined outcomes. (I)t may be necessary to shift policies and programs incrementally or on a pilot basis to gain practical lessons for a coherent, sustainable, and effective national program and financing structure to best serve the nation for the 21st century."
“The nation currently lacks a rational, robust program structure for prioritizing and providing financial support to high value investments in new infrastructure capacity. [I]t is time to replace the modally-oriented program delivery structure designed around…earlier purposes with one suited to the challenges of today and tomorrow. A mode-neutral federal discretionary program is needed to select and support infrastructure investments aimed at critical chokepoints in surface passenger and freight transportation system. … It makes no sense to try to address the challenges of a major urban corridor with separate modal programs, each with its own evaluation criteria and program requirements.” — Ron Kirby, Director of Transportation Planning, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, before the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, April 9, 2008
"So what do we do? How do we escape the trap we’re in: an obsolete and counterproductive transportation policy that has led to clogged roads and broken-down highways, and a political system that seems incapable of dealing with these problems? “
Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR) detailed concerns they first noted in their May 10th letter to governors, state legislators, and transportation officials around the country. “When a government agency considers contracting with a private company…there are many issues that must be examined.” The Bush DOT is a promoter of public private partnerships but it is not a Repub vs Dem thing. Politicians of both stripes are increasingly welcoming of private investment in public infrastructure and other facilities but Oberstar/DeFazio point to cautions that should be observed. As Oberstar’s counterpart, John Mica (R-FL) said, and DeFazio concurred, concerns are being raised in the absence of a government policy.
The focus of this October 2006 report funded by the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute is an argument that the Harbor Maintenance Tax should be voided. It contains an abbreviated but fairly comprehensive history of the HMT as well as statements as to why the HMT is flawed. The discussion on HMT is not limited to the Great Lakes and thus is useful to a policy debate on the HMT. However the paper does not offer as deep a discussion as I would like on how the HMT discourages the use of waterborne transportation and one would like to see more as to proposed “solutions to the HMT problem.”
The Ambassador Bridge is a major US-CN border crossing owned and operated by a privately held company. The company’s plans to build a larger, second bridge comes at a time when private investment in and ownership of major elements of transportation infrastructure is a hot policy topic in Washington and many states. The title is linked to a two-part NPR story on the bridge and expansion plans. In the first part you will hear Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry operator Greg Ward speak of security issues raised by private ownership.
Some of the commissioners have shown particular interest in what the future’s transportation should be, not just to fix immediate and near term problems. Congress is expected to give the commission until December to make its report on future transportation policy.