Bottom Line Thoughts on the Marine Transportation System

Bottom Line Thoughts on the Marine Transportation System

October 26, 2013  | Carter Templeton

BY PAUL BEA
PHB Public Affairs

Earlier this summer the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the association of State Department of Transportation chiefs, issued the last of its “bottom line” modal reports. This one—Waterborne Freight Transportation—is a useful addition to the studies and papers that indicate a marine transportation system in great need of policy attention. It is not that the Marine Transportation System (MTS) is in failing condition—certainly not that part engaged in international commerce—but “the very success of the MTS has masked serious underlying structural problems” that, if left unaddressed, “pose critical threats to the long-term health of the MTS and the nation as a whole.”

The report notes that unlike the American interstate highway system, the MTS “has evolved without larger scale coordinated policy and planning.” Indeed the ports and related infrastructure and services that developed without a “master plan” make the MTS a “collection of competitors.” Those who follow action in the ports of Charleston and Savannah, both overseen by State port authorities and championed by their respective State legislatures, can be fascinated watching that competition in real time.

The AASHTO report, the focus of which lands principally on the MTS infrastructure, identifies areas requiring attention. Waterway maintenance needs are not being met, navigation projects often take far too long to accomplish, funding for MTS expansion needs is uncertain, national investments are not being effectively targeted to meet national needs, and responsibility for the MTS in official Washington is widely diffused. That last item can be easily understood by looking at the “comprehensive matrix” spreadsheet on the CMTS website.

In a statement that could apply to maritime elements of the private sector as much as it most definitely does to government policy, the AASHTO report offers this bottom line thought: “Embracing business as usual will inevitably lead to significant further declines in MTS condition and performance, and to lost opportunities for our transportation system and economy.” Today former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, the nation’s inconvenient truth teller on matters infrastructure, and National Association of Manufacturers CEO Jay Timmons used the Philadelphia port as a backdrop for a similar message that is bolstered by a survey of manufacturers. “Improving our ports, highways, and bridges is essentially an economic driver. Modernized ports and transportation systems enable American manufacturers and businesses to export their goods to countries around the world, which strengthens our economy here at home,” Rendell said.

Much of that message in Philly and the AASHTO report is understandably centered on international commerce. Ports and their modal connectors enable U.S. exports to make it to other markets in competitive fashion. They also speed imported goods to Costco shelves and components to American assembly plants.

One had to look for it, but the AASHTO “bottom line” document also makes the suggestion, however briefly, that the MTS can play an increasingly important role stateside. With reference to the potential for Marine Highway freight transport the document notes that “with growing highway congestion, waterborne transportation becomes an even more attractive transportation alternative.” It concludes with the statement that “[w]aterborne trade and transportation will be cornerstones of the 21st century economy.”

Among the actions called for in the report is the establishment of an office of multimodal freight at USDOT, an oft-made recommendation by various stakeholders and in the reports of appointed and self-appointed commissions. Among the tasks of the office would be to create a “system map and classification of MTS facilities, analogous to the National Highway System and the National Freight Network.” Congress specified in MAP-21 that the designated NFN be highway only, a decision that reflects more the congressional committee jurisdictions and the “highway bill” tradition than it does the multimodal operating freight sector. (A recently introduced House bill, H.R. 2875, grandly named the “Waterfront of Tomorrow Act,” would amend MAP-21 to “ensure that ports and harbors are incorporated into the national freight network.”)

The recommended freight office would also be used to prepare a “long-range vision plan for the national MTS development and investment to meet national transportation and economic development objectives.” The report also calls for full utilization of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund monies for navigation infrastructure maintenance as well as an exemption from the Harbor Maintenance Tax for “domestic Marine Highway services.”

These recommendations are pointed in a constructive direction. But there is a missing element in the report. More significantly, it also is missing from the national transportation policy discussion on Capitol Hill, in those many departments and agencies tagged on the CMTS spreadsheet, and in the White House, then and now. What is missing is visible interest in what the national maritime policy need be. The weakest element of the multifaceted American marine transportation system, oddly enough, is marine transportation. The long, sloping trend line representing flagging support for U.S.-flag merchant shipping, an aging Jones Act coastal fleet that frustrates Marine Highway development, and a shrinking ship building sector needs to be reversed.  It is far from being the cornerstone of the economy that it once was and perhaps still can be.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

Paul Bea is a government relations and policy advisor in Washington, DC. He discusses marine transportation system matters at www.MTSmatters.com and on Twitter @pbea. This article also appears on the author’s MTS Matters blog.

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