Washington Waves: July 30, 2018

Washington, D.C.—U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, the retiring chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, unveiled a draft version of an infrastructure proposal to reignite a discussion on President Donald Trump’s stalled vision of a trillion-dollar package promised during the 2016 campaign.

It is unclear just how much impact the Pennsylvania Republican’s bid will have.

Even as he was urging others to keep an open mind, he included a temporary fuel tax increase, an idea that has been dismissed out of hand by other key Republicans.

Previously, Shuster has conceded that action on an infrastructure package might have to wait for a lame-duck congressional session after the November elections, an option that Trump also has suggested.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

Still, the American Association of Port Authorities welcomed Shuster’s leadership on the matter, citing his inclusion of improvements to the transportation system linked to ports and waterside funding to maintain harbors as well as a mechanism for full appropriation of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund revenue.

Waterways Commerce Cutter

A top Coast Guard official told a House panel the service continues its alternative analysis to establish a waterways commerce cutter to replace up to 35 existing vessels.

“We are engaging with the Army Corps of Engineers who runs similar vessels through their maritime design center,” said Vice Adm. Michael McAllister, deputy commandant for Mission Support.

“We have gone out with some requests for information to the industry to understand the state of the market and shipyard capabilities. So, we are in that process of identifying the best way to move forward on that acquisition.”

An update on the Coast Guard’s recapitalization effort on its inland waterways vessels was requested by Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.), who described maintaining inland waterways as “absolutely critical to the free flow of commerce, a huge piece of our commercial endeavors in the upper Midwest.

“Some of the oldest vessels in active government service are in those inland waterways,” said Lewis, whose district includes the Mississippi River.

His request came during a hearing by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation on the Guard’s acquisition programs, mission balance and effectiveness.

Much of the hearing focused on a newly released report by the Government Accountability Office that found the Coast Guard’s reliance on the annual budget process and five-year Capital Investment Plan fails to provide the best basis for decisions, and creates “constant chum” and a risk to future missions.

Subcommittee leaders from both parties expressed concern over what they saw as challenges with meeting critical needs.

Government Reorganization

Members of the Senate Energy Committee want to hear the Department of Defense’s take on a proposal to transfer functions of the Army Corps of Engineers to the Transportation and Interior departments.

They made that request during a hearing on the Trump administration’s sweeping plan to reorganize the federal government.

While the plans for the Corps received something of a pass as members focused mainly on the proposed changes to the U.S. Department of Energy, at least two of the senators were direct on their request when it came to Corps.

“I also would like the Department of Defense’s view on picking up the Corps of Engineers and dropping it in various parts of the United States government,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats.

”I think (Defense) Secretary (James) Mattis’ comments on that would be informative.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee’s chairman, used her closing statement at the hearing to echo King’s comment.

“Where is DoD on some of the Corps issues?’ she asked.

Murkowski also urged the two officials representing the administration, Susan Combs, senior advisor at the Department of the Interior, and Bernard McNamee, executive director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Policy, to reach out to members of the committee on the proposal.

“Allowing us to better understand how this whole thing knits together or perhaps how it unravels, I’m not quite sure, but I think that that would be helpful for all of us,” she said.

When asked whether Mattis or any other top Defense official had weighed in on the proposal, DoD spokeswoman Heather Babb said the department is aware of it.

“One of Secretary Mattis’ top three priorities is reforming the way we do business,” Babb said.

“We will continue to talk to and work with our interagency partners on efforts that allow us to remain focused on the defense of our nation and to improve the lethality and readiness of our department.”

Corps Public-Private Partnerships

The National Waterways Conference is encouraging its members to provide feedback to the National Academy of Public Administration on public-private partnerships used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help meet local water resource needs.

NWC cited a provision in the 2014 Water Resources and Reform Development Act that requires the evaluation of the Corps’ Project Partnership Agreement process and recommendations to improve it.

The project director is Pamela Haze, who said the evaluation will be completed at the end of September.

“In order to use the input from Waterways Conference members, we would like to talk with them as soon as they are available but no later than the end of August,” she said.

Haze said NAPA hopes to speak to nonfederal entities with experience working with the Corps on partnership projects, specifically Project Partnership Agreements or Local Cooperation Agreements.

Opportunities And Challenges

MarAd Administrator Mark Buzby used a speech to a Kentucky organization to lay out opportunities and challenges the maritime industry should prepare for in the coming years.

On the plus side, Buzby put a 45 percent boost in domestic and international freight flows over the next three decades and a 70-million increase in population.

“That means we are going to be moving a lot more stuff,” he said in prepared remarks to the West Kentucky Alliance for a Vibrant Economy.

With land traffic choking roads and highways, he described maritime with its untapped capacity as the obvious alternative. 

Challenges cited by Buzby include the existing shortfall in meeting maritime workforce needs and projected growth that should add 417,000 jobs in the transportation sector by 2022 with another 4.2 million vacancies caused by reasons such as retirements and transfers.

He said maritime companies in Europe and Asia quickly are developing autonomous vessel technologies that could cut deeply into the U.S. commercial shipping market.

To help meet that challenge, Buzby said MarAd has signed on to a charter to create a highly automated and autonomous vessel coordination action team (A/VCAT) to collect data on autonomous technologies and promote that curricula in U.S. engineering, educational and maritime institutions.

He said MarAd also entered into a consortium agreement with the American Bureau of Shipping to promote the design, construction, operation and maintenance of autonomous vessels.