Transportation Infrastructure: Boxer (almost) Gets it Right

Published Dec 22, 2010 9:55 AM by The Maritime Executive

CA lawmaker calls on heavy users to pay for transportation infrastructure but misses the low-hanging fruit of Harbor Maintenance Tax reform as an additional way to get to the Promised Land. The June 25 Senate Environment and Public Works hearing revolved largely on how to keep the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) solvent. Financed primarily by the gas tax which has yielded markedly lower revenues because of reduced mileage by Americans in the wake of $4+ per gallon gasoline in the Fall of 2008 (and the soured economy that followed), the Highway Trust Fund will very soon (August) go broke without the 18 month extension asked for by the Obama Administration. In response, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is asking ports, rails, trucks – the heavy users that theoretically take the highest toll on our nation’s highway system – join in paying for transportation repairs. It all sounds logical, except that Boxer herself, a self-proclaimed environmentalist, has once again failed to grasp the big picture. Here is why: Boxer laid out her plans to replenish the HTF succinctly at the recent meeting. She insisted, “I’m not going to keep going back to the American public on a gas tax. Let the heavy users like the truckers step up to the plate, and we can work together.” She even claimed that the truckers had shown willingness to play ball where the others had not. At the same meeting, she also argued that greenhouse gas is “a real problem.” What that (greenhouse gas) has to do with funding for the HTF quite frankly escapes me, but she was (however briefly) on the right highway before making several wrong turns. As it stands now, Boxer and her colleagues from both sides of the aisle are headed in the wrong direction. And that’s because funding for the short term – no matter what source it comes from – won’t solve the underlying problem. That’s where Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) reform comes in. As a general concept, Boxer is probably on the right track when she says that heavy users take the highest toll on the highways and therefore should shoulder a commensurate portion of the tab to fix the problem. But, what if the source of the problem was eliminated or at least minimized to an extent that drastically reduced the necessity of highway repairs and significantly increased the lifespan of existing highways? And, what if that solution included a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, an increase in tax revenues from a domestic shortsea shipbuilding boom, reduced congestion for our clogged highways, as well as an increase in our domestic merchant fleet to bolster our sealift capacities in times of war? Now, a lot of that also has nothing to do with fixing HTF, but if Boxer can stray far off course in her arguments, then I can be forgiven for the same sins. Here and abroad; shortsea shipping works. One such place where the merits of a focused effort to remove heavy trucks from the nation’s highways are already reaping huge dividends is the state of Connecticut’s link to Long Island. In a 2000 survey of ferry operators, it was determined that of the 4 major operators reporting annual figures to the Federal Highway Administration, there were over 2.1 million passenger boardings and nearly 852,000 vehicle boardings of ferries servicing Connecticut’s ports. Many of those vehicles are heavy trucks and – please reach out and correct me if I have my statistics wrong – in the past five years alone, more than a million trucks were taken off the roads by such means. Think about the reduced idling time for commuters and commerce alike on the already congested Long Island Expressway alone. According to a Connecticut Maritime Coalition study, “Connecticut believes that significant truck traffic could be diverted from Fairfield and New Haven Counties by barging truck trailers from New York City to Bridgeport, New Haven or New London. These results come from a strongly conservative assessment of the continuing significance of the State’s deepwater ports.” The report goes on to say, “And we keep 1,300 trucks off the road for each steel-carrying vessel docking in New Haven.” And, in case you have still missed the point, removing trucks from the road where it is possible will also significantly reduce wear and tear – and associated costs – on the nation’s highways. Now, I’m guessing that truckers will probably be reluctant to sign on to the short sea bandwagon. Furthermore, I also wonder why the short sea component of the Harbor Maintenance Tax is still on the books despite virtually no revenues being derived from it by the federal government. On the other hand, the lobbyists trying to prevent repeal of the shortsea HMT can take solace that, once the trucks and containers get to their port of destination, someone will still be needed to drive them off the ship or barge. The Obama administration wants Congress to extend the current highway program for 18 months to allow time to find money to replenish HTF. Pushing back are Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who want a new transportation bill this year. And now, there is a real chance that both lawmakers and other supporters of the HMT reform will have enough leverage to persuade colleagues on the Ways and Means and Finance committees to include it in any revenue measure. There may never be a better opportunity to get this done. By all means: find a short term solution to replenish the fund. But, that effort needs to be coupled with ways to reduce the traffic on our nation’s roads as a means of keeping that tab to an absolute minimum. The underlying problem exists because the roads are being used to an extent far greater than the original construction allowed for. It’s a rare occurrence inside the beltway when a funding crisis can be addressed with the additional benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, greatly reducing roadway deterioration and associated costs, while increasing tax revenues through new sources of maritime business and construction. And not a moment too soon (see the EPA’s proposed stringent standards for large ships). Senator Boxer and her friends can have it all! Someone bang on her door up on the Hill and let her know. – MarEx. Joseph Keefe is the Editor in Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at [email protected]. Join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685