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American ShipperShippingTrade and Compliance

Waterway maintenance could move to DOT

Office of Management and Budget report also proposes privatizing St. Lawrence Seaway.

    The Trump administration’s sweeping proposals for reorganizing the federal government set forth last week in the Office and Management and Budget report Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century include a suggestion that responsibility for commercial dredging be transferred from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the Department of Transportation.
   “Transferring Corps navigation programs to DOT would consolidate responsibility across all transportation modes within a single federal agency, thereby encouraging consistent federal policy in the transportation sector. This consolidation would leverage DOT’s expertise in infrastructure and make DOT’s maritime responsibilities analogous to its role in other transportation sectors. In the maritime sector, DOT’s mission would expand to helping states and non-federal partners make infrastructure investment decisions,” the report says.
    “Unlike all other modes of transportation, DOT has a very limited role in the nation’s commercial maritime systems,” the report continues, adding that “there are opportunities to add to DOT’s responsibilities for coastal ports, inland waterways and navigation permitting activities. Under this proposal, responsibility for coastal port dredging and operation of the inland waterway system, currently carried out by the Corps, would be shifted to DOT, which already has some limited expertise in the port and inland waterway sectors.”
   OMB says, “Shifting these programs to DOT would also be an opportunity to reassess the type of federal involvement in both sectors. Given DOT’s experience in providing financial assistance to major infrastructure projects, a new model of Federal financial assistance to ports may be a more efficient project delivery mechanism than direct Federal control, construction, and ongoing maintenance. A similar financial assistance model could be applied to the inland waterway system, though some portions may require continued Federal ownership, control and operation.”
   ”When the American Association of Port Authorities has surveyed its members about such changes, “we get a lot of different opinions,” says Aaron Ellis, the public affairs director.”If you talk to two different port directors, you get two different opinions whether it’s a good idea, a bad idea and the reasons why.”
    Before any change was made, he said the AAPA would “want to make sure that there was plenty of study done and that there was testimony an all sides–a really good look at the potential upsides and downsides before such a thing were to occur.”
    That should be an “open and transparent process” that takes into consideration the input of the nonfederal sponsors of harbor deepening projects such as port authorities, state and local governments, the other stakeholders, he added.
    Mike Toohey, the president and chief executive officer of the Waterways Council, said the upside of the OMB proposal to transfer responsibility for navigation programs from the Army Corps to DOT was “we’d finally have a cabinet level advocate for navigation which we currently lack.” He notes the Defense Secretary has “a lot more important things to worry about than the civil works mission of the Army Corps of Engineers.
    “But the downside is we’re very supportive of the Corps navigation mission and think that they do an excellent job with it. It’s the horns of a dilemma for us.”
    He said Norman Mineta, President Georgia W. Bush’s Secretary of Transportation had advocated for a similar change, but during the war in Iraq, the Corps “demonstrated their effectiveness in helping the war effort by mobilizing the civil works staff.”
    Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was opposed to transferring responsibility for civil works away from the Army because the Army engineers who during peacetime are performing domestic work were so valuable when deployed overseas during war performing functions restoring water, waste water and electricity in Iraq.
    The Water Resources Development Act of 2018 (H.R. 8) also calls for a study of the future of the Army Corps of Engineers.
   “I don’t know whether they’ll try to accelerate that provision in WRDA,” said Toohey.
    The report also suggests that in addition to privatizing the nation’s air traffic control system, the Saint Lawrence Seaway could be spun off from the government, which OMB says “would allow them to have better governance structures and insulation from the political system and allow them to better assess fees based on actual usage of their systems.”
   While the Waterways Council is focused on inland watersays, not the St. Lawrence Seaway, Toohey said the proposal “could be precedent to doing the same thing to the inland waterways, which we are violently opposed to because we’re violently opposed to turning over the authority to toll to a private entrepreneur. We’re already paying the highest fuel tax of any transportation mode and then to put tolls on top of that would destroy the ability of the carriers to provide service to the shipping community.”
    OMB says, “The Maritime Administration (MARAD) is DOT’s operating administration engaged in the promotion of the U.S. maritime sector, yet its mission is dominated by educating cadets at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and carrying out two defense-related programs designed to meet the Department of Defense’s military sealift needs in a time of crisis. In contrast to DOT’s other operating administrations, MARAD has no safety regulatory function and limited financial assistance activities, which leaves DOT under-represented in commercial maritime issues.”
    Under the Maritime Security Program, MARAD provides stipends for 60 of the 82 U.S.-flag ships that are involved in international trades to help subsidize the additional cost of employing U.S. seafarers so that there are military useful ships and experienced merchant mariners available to work should they be needed during war or national emergency.
   MARAD also manages the Ready Reserve Fleet, 46 ships that are kept ready for activation within five days to transport military cargo if needed. It is part of the larger National Defense Reserve Fleet, which also can be activated during time of emergency.
   The report also says, “In addition, transferring current U.S. Coast Guard responsibilities for permitting alterations to bridges and aids to coastal navigation to DOT would better align those functions with similar functions already carried out by DOT.”

Chris Dupin

Chris Dupin has written about trade and transportation and other business subjects for a variety of publications before joining American Shipper and Freightwaves.

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