The Center Porthole: Good News on the Horizon?
by Joseph Keefe
Jan 16, 2013, 8:47AM EST
It has been more than four years since I’ve seen the inside of the DOT building in Washington. That may not mean much to you but some of us, from time to time; need to report on the regulatory climate and federal oversight of the nation’s maritime industry. Certainly, it has been a long, long time since anyone got a straight answer out of DOT and/or its maritime modal arm, the U.S. Maritime Administration. That situation may be coming to an end. We can only hope so.
DOT Secretary LaHood is probably not on the President’s returning Cabinet roster, which can only mean that David Matsuda, the U.S. Maritime Administrator, will also be on the way out the door. If so, it will usher in the end of a difficult four years for the domestic waterfront, the U.S. merchant marine in general and our maritime infrastructure – both deepwater and inland. That said; and in an era where the abject neglect of this island nation’s maritime component is a decidedly bipartisan affair, you have to ask yourself whether it really matters who replaces them. I’d like to think that it does.
It wasn’t too long ago that the previous Maritime Administrator – Sean Connaughton – actually advocated for the domestic waterfront, pushed forward substantial ideas on ways to jumpstart our flagging marine highways and shortsea shipping programs and wasn’t afraid to get out into public and discuss the issues with those stakeholders who were trying to do the same thing. He wasn’t perfect, but nobody in recent memory put more sweat equity into that job. In January 2009, a new administration thought the position of Marad Chief was so important that DOT waited a whopping 19 months to fill the job. The choice of Matsuda, a career SES employee and the “place holder” after Connaughton departed with the outgoing Bush Administration, was no choice at all. We’ve been spinning our wheels ever since.
Four years of watching terrified Marad staffers cower from publicly uttering anything more controversial than a lunch order at a diner has been simply painful. Virtually every word of every release or comment from inside of Marad over the course of the past four years has had to clear vetting from DOT public affairs at the top. That’s perhaps not unusual for big organizations – inside the government or in the private sector – but it has been especially frustrating, given the transparency and candor that was the hallmark of the previous maritime administration. Beyond this, the lack of substantive leadership on the waterfront (aside, of course, from the largest number of Jones Act waivers issued in the past 60 years) has been breathtaking.
Along the way, virtually 99 percent of all ARRA funds and anything else earmarked for “transportation” infrastructure have gone into rail and highway improvements. That particular statistic might just make Mr. Matsuda – who inexplicably came from the rail side of the equation – immensely happy, but it hasn’t done anything to move the cargo off the roads and rails onto the water where it belongs. And, the trains are still moving at the lightening fast average speed of 9 MPH in and out of our Midwest rail hubs. For LaHood’s part, he only confirmed what we already know when in October 2012 he said in a prepared statement, “Throughout this term, we have also focused our efforts on creating jobs as we rebuild our roads, rails and runways …” No mention of the ports and maritime component of that equation. That’s also a transportation mode; so they tell me.
The inauguration for the President’s second term in office is just around the corner. Turning my attention to what will probably come next and assuming that Mr. LaHood indeed decides to go home to see what will play in Peoria, we’ll need a new transportation secretary. Other publications are already bandying about various names; former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, just to name a couple. On the other hand, I have my own ideas.
My vision for the next DOT Secretary is someone with a proven track record in the job, as opposed to the typical appointment of a political friend who needs something to do. The new Secretary should understand all modes of transportation, how all of that fits together into the intermodal equation and why each piece of the puzzle is important. Experience would play a big part in my choice; some prior knowledge of what the job involves, along with the proven ability to navigate the Hill, will all be helpful. He or she will also (of course) be knowledgeable about ocean and inland commerce and possess the savvy to identify a Maritime Administration candidate who brings some of the same qualities to that sub-cabinet post. Can’t think of anyone? Let me help.
As it turns out, and a mere two hours down I-95 in Richmond, VA, the Commonwealth’s transportation needs are being attended to by none other than our former Maritime Administrator, Sean Connaughton. As the Commonwealth’s Secretary of Transportation, he oversees seven state agencies with more than 9,700 employees and combined annual budgets of $5 billion. A Republican like Mr. LaHood (if you care), he today continues his passion for shortsea shipping and has, among other things, fostered the development of an inland barge solution from Hampton Roads to the Port of Richmond. Along the way, we have watched as thousands of trucks have been removed from the road on the crowded, I-64 intermodal corridor. Can you imagine that sort of thing burgeoning into a national trend? I can. Apparently, so can he.
It’s something to think about. I already have. I can dream. Can you also imagine a maritime-friendly transportation secretary at the federal cabinet level? The inauguration is just around the corner. The audacity of hope! –
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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at email@example.com