Washington Waves: May 7, 2018

Washington, D.C.—MarAd Administrator Mark Buzby became one of the latest agency heads to receive a “fair hearing” on their fiscal year 2019 budget proposals only to be told how outdated and inadequate their requests have become.

“I don’t think you’ll see a lot of support on this committee for deep cuts to important DOT programs,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) chairman of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee.

Diaz-Balart stressed the panel would pick up where it left off when it passed the omnibus spending bill to fund the remaining months of fiscal year 2018 and make a $11 billion down payment in new transportation and housing infrastructure.

“What we just did in the omnibus shows that this committee does real infrastructure,” he said, making it clear the next budget will keep that same focus.

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“This is an infrastructure committee.”

Diaz-Balart referenced the bill’s $980 million for MarAd, including $300 million for a new school ship and $121 million for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and compared it to the $696 million requested for fiscal year 2019.

His tone echoed those struck by other appropriations committee and subcommittee chairmen on both sides of the Capitol.

Buzby received something of a break by sitting at the witness table with officials from the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration, who took most of the questions from the subcommittee.

During his opening statement, Buzby said the president’s budget request of $696.4 million was focused on boosting the competitiveness of the U.S.-flag fleet and investing in education and training for the next generation of merchant mariners.

He also described progress achieved in addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, but conceded more work remains.

He said the agency will address recommendations included in a recent report by the DOT Office of Inspector General.

Buzby expressed confidence midshipmen are being placed in a safe environment even when they are at sea.

In response to questions, Buzby conceded the USMMA is an “outlier” as the only academy not under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, adding that issue probably needs to be studied.

Buzby expressed gratitude for the funding for the new school ship.

“Building a large ship in the United States is a big deal,” Buzby said, describing the construction of a training vessel as a “real first.”

Tariff Negotiations

As the waterways industry and others warned of the uncertainties caused by tariffs, the Trump administration announced developments on the trade front that did not offer much hope to critics.

Much of the attention focused on the 30-day extension of negotiations with Europe, Canada and Mexico on steel and aluminum.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the negotiations were extended because the administration saw progress was being made, but Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on CNBC rejected the possibility of future delays because some would begin gaming the system.

The American Institute for International Steel expressed disappointment that President Trump did not act to end the uncertainty.

“Our member companies are already seeing prices spike by more than 30 percent for steel, and delivery times have more than tripled in many cases,” said AIIS President Richard Chriss.

“We call on President Trump to enter into global negotiations about overcapacity for steel and aluminum before these trade wars cost tens of thousands of U.S. jobs.”

In an op-ed written for the Orange County Register, Edward Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, and Kurt Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities, also laid out the repercussions an unnecessary trade war would have on seaports and private freight rail sectors.

“Policymakers in Washington must work swiftly to restore market certainties and forge paths to expand U.S. exports, rather than create new import restrictions,” they wrote.

Pruitt: No EPA Retreat

A defiant Administrator Scott Pruitt served notice the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would not retreat from its work on issues such as replacing the Waters of the United States rule despite multiple inquiries into his management issues.

“Let me be very clear. I have nothing to hide as it relates to how I’ve run the agency over the past 16 months,” Pruitt said at the first of two back-to-back House committee hearings called to discuss his agency’s budget.

He dismissed many of the accusations leveled against him as half-truths or stories so twisted they do not resemble reality.

“Those who attack the EPA and attack me are doing so because they want to attack and derail the president’s agenda and undermine this administration’s priorities. I am simply not going to let that happen,” Pruitt said.

It did not take long for the hearings to turn into mostly partisan affairs with Republicans accusing Democrats of asking questions simply to generate headlines and Democrats responding in kind by accusing Republicans of not being up to the task of providing adequate oversight.

Despite conceding that the multiple accusations cannot be ignored, key Republicans continue to praise Pruitt’s work in implementing the Trump agenda.

Capital Projects Seminar

The American Association of Port Authorities will present a conference May 8–9 in Norfolk, Va., that will include a session on how ports can tap into billions of federal grant dollars available through the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Participants are scheduled to include Robert Mariner, deputy director of DOT’s Office of Infrastructure Finance and Innovation, Scott Davies, MarAd’s director of the Office of Ports and Waterways Planning, and AAPA’s Surface Transportation Policy and Legislation Director John Young.

Hosted by the Virginia Port Authority, the conference also will include an exercise led by Brian Papernik of Nossaman LLP, on using public-private partnerships to deliver infrastructure projects.

AAPA’s 2018 Capital Projects Seminar will be hosted by Dewberry and WSP and will be held at Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel, 777 Waterside Drive, Norfolk, Va.

Users Board To Meet

The Inland Waterways Users Board will meet at 8 a.m. on May 25 in Pittsburgh, Pa., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced.

Items on the agenda include funding for fiscal year 2018, budget for fiscal year 2019, status of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, and status of the Olmsted, Monongahela, Chickamauga and Kentucky lock and dam projects.

Registration for the public meeting begins at 7:15 a.m.

The meeting will be held at the Sheraton Pittsburgh Hotel at Station Square, 300 West Station Square Drive, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15219.

For additional information, contact Mark Pointon at 703-428-6438.