Mineta offers blueprint for new federal lead on maritime policy
Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta on Tuesday called for a sweeping overhaul of federal maritime policy that would be centered in a revitalized Maritime Administration to preserve national economic strength.
Federal direction for maritime issues has historically languished due to the parochial evolution of the nation's ports, with control at the state and local level, and as the U.S. merchant fleet mostly evaporated during the past 30 years. But Mineta said the maritime system must receive the same attention and resources as the highway and aviation systems if the United States is to successfully compete in global commerce.
'To fail is to become a second-rate economic power with a decrease in our quality of life here at home and a reduced ability to effect change in international affairs,' Mineta told an audience of financiers, port directors and other freight interests at the North American Port & Intermodal Finance and Investment Summit in Miami.
The government and public have treated the maritime sector as a stepchild compared to surface transportation and aviation, he lamented. The Department of Transportation plays a leading role in establishing national highway, transit and rail policies, and the government considers aviation so important that the DOT basically operates the air traffic control system.
Maritime responsibilities, however, are scattered through more than a dozen federal agencies, and Mineta said that bringing them together in a reorganized Maritime Administration would allow the government to develop a comprehensive maritime policy and raise money from Congress for shipping needs.
Without a central organization focused on maritime policy, maritime funding is dribbled throughout the federal budget and subject to diversion for other purposes.
The Department of Transportation, through MarAd, needs to become the sponsor of the maritime system in the same way it acts as a major provider of funding, standard-setting authority and safety regulator for all passenger and commercial surface and aviation transportation, he said.
Mineta, now vice chairman of communications and government affairs for consulting firm Hill & Knowlton, said the reorganized agency should be called the Federal Maritime Administration to highlight its overarching maritime role. He recommended that the government transfer virtually all federal maritime programs there, including the responsibilities for aids to navigation from the Coast Guard and the portion of the Army Corps of Engineers that manages domestic ports and waterways. A uniformed Federal Maritime Service would take over responsibility for both programs.
'The Army performing as domestic, civil ' engineers is not a role for the military, and the country would save money and get a better product if these services were transferred to a single maritime agency,' Mineta said.
Savings would partially result from not having to pay military pensions and lodging for Army Corps workers, policy analysts say.
The consolidation could encompass activities taken from agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, maritime trade promotion in the Commerce Department, the shipping regulators at the Federal Maritime Commission and others.
The consolidation would provide a one-stop shop for industry and citizens to address their concerns, and it would help the appropriations process by pooling congressional oversight in a single committee that gives affected stakeholders a door to knock on in search of system resources.
Mineta urged that the new organization focus on the entirety of the transportation system, including the inland rail, barge and road networks that are critical to how freight flows in and out of ports.
'The current agency has too many of its resources and structure focused on the issue of ships and crews,' he said.
The former transport secretary for presidents Clinton and Bush also suggested that the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point in Long Island, N.Y., be renamed the National Maritime Academy and given the status of a federal service academy along the lines of West Point, the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy. Graduates would serve in the Federal Maritime Service or as a commissioned officer in another service branch, including the Department of Homeland Security.
'The federal government must develop a legislative reauthorization process that puts maritime issues on the same level of importance that surface and aviation assets currently have. If ports and waterways funding is always being relegated to parts of the surface transportation bill, or the defense bill, they will remain second-class subjects where the hope is to get your particular project an earmarked status,' Mineta stated.
The United States must also escalate its participation in international maritime organizations and its maritime relations with other countries, he added.
Underpinning these efforts, Mineta said, must be a grassroots education campaign by maritime stakeholders to educate Americans and policymakers about the importance of ports and waterways to the nation's economy. Most Americans have little connection to the ports and do not understand how these gateways make possible the delivery of affordable goods used in their daily lives.
He proposed that the maritime industry create a national maritime association, with membership to include local and state government officials, and port authorities, that would educate Congress and the presidential candidates on the role of the maritime system in delivering freight and get hard commitments to fight for maritime's fair share of infrastructure resources.
Mineta said industry must overcome what he called its habit of avoiding change and settling for 'agreements of mutual mediocrity' to spur decisive action by government. Different industry constituencies must put aside their differences to work for the common goal of raising the profile of maritime issues at the federal level, he urged.
Without active participation by industry in pressing for the government to organize the maritime system 'investment in this sector will be fraught with unmanageable risk and this space will have limited appeal for investors seeking to put their money in U.S. infrastructure,' he told the audience.
At a time when the United States is faced with an 'increasingly globalized economy, a just-in-time freight logistics system, unprecedented energy challenges the federal government must respond — and its response must be more than opening its checkbook. And you in private industry must do more than look for low hanging investment fruit.'
MarAd's current administrator, Sean Connaughton, already tinkered with the agency's structure earlier this year to address inland bottlenecks, and has made development of a National Port Strategy one of his goals. The idea is to coordinate what is now an isolated planning process in each locale.
However, agency officials are not intent on drafting a big white paper full of new ideas, but rather on making incremental progress by building consensus with industry on better ways to move cargo.
Mineta's suggestions would take the agency to another level through more wholesale change.
That is likely to meet resistance from other parts of the government that want to hold onto their missions. Earlier this year, the White House proposed in its fiscal 2008 budget to transfer bridge administration from the Coast Guard to MarAd. The program provides money for bridges, repairs and navigational aids. But the Coast Guard fought hard against the idea and it died. DOT officials have talked internally over the past few years about making some of these changes, but have held back because of the expected jurisdictional resistance, a current department official said.
In the meantime, President Bush a year ago created a Cabinet-level working group called the Committee on the Marine Transport System as a stopgap measure to promote more cooperation among agencies with responsibilities in the marine transport system. The committee gives agencies a formal forum to coordinate their activities. It is chaired by DOT Secretary Mary Peters, but the staff work is currently headed by Ret. U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher. Connaughton will take over chairmanship of the committee operations in January. ' Eric Kulisch