No money for marine highways

Appearing before the North American Marine Highways and Logistics Conference in Baltimore recently, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood offered some very good reasons why developing new marine highways (aka short-sea shipping) is good for the U.S. economy, the environment and international trade.

And he gave assurances that “America’s maritime transportation system is a major priority for President Obama’s administration,” especially as oil and gas prices rise. “Marine highways are one crucial ingredient in the recipe for energy efficiency and energy independence,” he said, adding that these coastal transport links must be part of a “seamlessly integrated network” with roads, rails, airports and ports.

But what should happen and what is likely to happen are two different things.

LaHood truly believes in the advantages of marine highways. And his department has taken some important steps to smooth the way, approving grants for marine highway and port projects over the past two years, designating 18 marine highway corridors, and integrating these routes into the national transportation system. In addition, DOT sent a report to Congress last week outlining what LaHood calls a “road map” (probably not the best choice of words!) for successful development of marine highways.

But the DOT secretary’s hands are tied, at least when it comes to money.

Even as his report to Congress acknowledges the need for “strong leadership from the federal government” including continuation of matching capital grants for marine highway projects, the president’s fiscal year 2012 budget included no funding for the grants program.

Administration officials point out, however, that they are requesting $5 billion for a National Infrastructure Bank that would provide grants, loans and a blend of both for projects including ports and maritime initiatives. But there are no guarantees that the budget cutters in Congress will go along, and no guarantees that marine highways will get some of the money if it is ever appropriated.

As a result, marine highway supporters won’t likely see federal funds for start-ups anytime soon. But there are things that Uncle Sam can do in the meantime.

LaHood’s report to Congress outlines several actions, which have been proposed by the transportation community. These include exempting domestic and Great Lakes Saint Lawrence Seaway System non-bulk cargoes from the Harbor Maintenance Tax, giving priority to marine highway vessels for Title XI shipbuilding, and implementing broad-based tax policy changes such as an investment tax credits and accelerated depreciation for vessels.

LaHood said these measures are “under consideration by the administration.” Wouldn’t this be a good time to endorse such reforms that many agree would help dismantle the “roadblocks” to marine highway development?

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About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.

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