A Fiscal Cliff of a Different Kind
It isn’t hard to distract the attention of the general public or the U.S. Government from anything that has to do with commercial, waterborne shipping. I mean, if the U.S. Department of Transportation and its marginalized Maritime Administration don’t care, why should you? The ongoing budget negotiations in Washington are another perfect example of that metric. As important as that discussion may be, what’s happening on the domestic waterfront is equally troubling. From coast to coast and in the heartland, the engine that keeps the economy moving is sputtering and could, if not addressed in a substantive way and soon, abruptly grind to a halt.
Our maritime troubles emanate from any number of sources; man-made (port strikes, for example), Mother Nature (the Midwest droughts) and quite frankly, decades of abject neglect on a local and national level. As we close in on the New Year, and immediately following the short-lived but highly impactful west coast strike in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, we are faced yet again with another potentially more damaging strike on the East and Gulf Coasts, as well as a navigational crisis on the Mississippi River that could eventually stop traffic there. The combined effect of these conditions gets some play in the national media, but not to extent of the certain damage that looms just over the horizon because of it.
Let’s face it: the other transportation modes support better funded lobbies that get out a more coherent message and reach a wider congressional audience; to a much greater effect. It’s in part why 99 percent of all ARRA dollars were spent pouring concrete or on ridiculous high-speed rail projects that most governors simply didn’t want. It’s also why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had their budget cut at a time when the nation’s inland infrastructure is crumbling and a Midwest drought cries out for dredging on the Mississippi River. And, it is why deep draft U.S. ports are forced to hold bake sales to fund dredging in preparation for the wider and deeper Panama Canal traffic that will commence some time in 2014.
But, this is no time to stop talking. Certainly, the Waterways Council, Inc. and the American Waterways Operators haven’t. As a one-two punch, for example, they’ve poked and prodded in the halls of Congress to get some relief on the Mississippi River. It may be too little, too late; at least for this year. Nevertheless, this is the very kind of effort that may soon produce results. That’s because when the noise from the budget deal finally dies down at the end of this month – and it will – the scope of the crisis facing the maritime sector will finally become fully transparent.
I certainly wouldn’t wish this scenario on anyone, but if the anticipated work stoppage kicks off in the New Year at about the same time as the Mississippi River runs dry, people will finally start to listen – or, so one would hope. Decades of neglect on the inland rivers, the seemingly unquenchable thirst of already well-compensated dock workers and the specter of 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline and port infrastructure that is woefully unprepared for a new class and size of merchant tonnage will come together as the perfect storm that will take down a fragile and recovering economy. Forget outsourcing and manufacturing losses. If we can’t get our bulk product to market efficiently and quickly, then someone else will.
It’s already happening elsewhere. The European shortsea and inland shipping model, with notable exceptions like the Commonwealth of Virginia’s James River barge operation, is already far more efficient than ours. The smart course here is to get the cargo off the crumbling highways and 9 MPH trains and onto the rivers where it can be economically, cleanly and efficiently moved from point A to B. There will always be a place for trucking and rail – there just needs to be a little more water in the intermodal equation. A little more water right now from the USACE in the Mississippi River wouldn’t hurt either.
The economy is poised to absorb yet another multi-billion dollar body blow at the end of the month, assuming the ILA strike begins in the absence of a fresh labor agreement. Indeed, yesterday’s report from the bargaining table indicates that the union is in no mood to compromise. At just about the same time, advocacy groups for the nation’s inland waterways say that navigation on the Mississippi River will all but stop unless the USACE releases far more water from the Missouri River Reservoir System. At that point, the maritime piece of the intermodal equation will become more than just a footnote on the evening news. Three or four weeks after that, the average taxpayer will finally understand what you and I have been trying to tell them for the past two decades.
My British friends back in the oil patch always told me that “When America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.” That was true way back in the 1980’s and it is true today. As such, those companies, shippers, vendors who are not already preparing for the scenario painted above may already be doomed. Let’s hope it does not come to that. Right now, it is unfortunate that Washington still cannot understand the needs of an island nation at the same time that organized labor is only too prepared to exploit that same ignorance. It will be a painful and expensive lesson to learn.
Heading into the holidays and looking ahead to the New Year, there is much to be thankful for in the domestic maritime sector. Shipyards and brown water fleets are experiencing better times, offshore oil leases are picking up and the cry for more and better skilled labor there is ample proof that there are jobs to be had for those with the right skills. Don’t let that drown out the other message. The trucking and rail lobby wouldn’t let a little prosperity get in the way of still more vigorous lobbying inside the beltway – we shouldn’t either. Let’s hope it doesn’t take the biggest transportation crisis in our lifetime to make the general public and our elected officials finally get a clue. – MarPro
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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 or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.