Friday, August 17, 2012

What do the port rankings really mean?

The Port of Greater Cincinnati is planning to expand its port designation which will elevate its ranking in the US Army Corps of Engineers table of ports and their tonnages.  They have requested that the USACE redefine its port designation from the current 26-mile riverfront to a 200-mile stretch of the Ohio River between Madison, Ind., and Portsmouth, Ohio.  The Port of Cincinnati currently ranks 44th among all ports, and port officials believe that the new designation will put them near the top ten.  In actuality, Cincinnati's primary motive for expanding their port designation is economics and capturing business.  Plus, they are banking on a surge in shipments entering the country due to the Panama Canal expansion as projected by the AAPA.  The port ranking is just a bonus, but it will no doubt be heavily touted in marketing campaigns.

Granted, the Port of Pittsburgh wasn't always defined as it is today.  The "Port of Pittsburgh" was defined as the area within the city limits until 1979 when it was redefined as including the Ohio River to mile 40, the Monongahela River to mile 43, and the Allegheny River to mile 30.  Then in 1993, the Port of Pittsburgh was designated as all of the navigable rivers within Southwestern Pennsylvania.  This last change, however, was also not done to increase port rankings but to ensure that all waterway interests in the region could benefit from the newly created Port Commission which was an agency of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Since it appears that how an inland river port is defined is very loose and arbitrary, what value do port rankings really have?  For a number of years, the Port of Pittsburgh ranked as the busiest inland river port on the Inland Waterway System, handling 40 to 50 million tons per year until 2000 when the Port of Huntington Tri-State was created which transformed the Port of Huntington's 14 miles of river into a 100-mile tri-state Port district which ranges from the mouth of the Scioto River near Portsmouth, stretching upstream to the northern boundary of Gallia County, Ohio; 9 miles of the Big Sandy River and 90 miles of the Kanawha River.  This meant that its tonnage handled annually was now in the 80-million ton range, putting the Port of Huntington Tri-State into the number one ranking of inland ports and (at the time) sixth among all ports.

Of course, the important thing is that waterway transportation continues to garner support due to the enormous economic and environmental benefits that are bestowed on not only those in and around port districts, but on the nation as a whole.  As for port rankings, how much meaning can they have when the definition of the term "port" is different in every instance?  It's not unlike discussing home run stats for baseball players when you realize that ball parks are not all the same size and then notice that some of the guys near the top of the standings play their home games in parks with closer outfield walls.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Fail to Fix--Fail to Comprehend

Prior to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in August 2005, several reports, studies, models, and even television documentaries had been made which, we later came to learn, accurately described the level of devastation from such an event.  Louisiana State University in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a model and published a report in 2002 predicting the effects of a category 5 hurricane striking New Orleans; the Houston Chronicle and the New Orleans Times-Picayune published articles in 2001 and 2002, respectively, on just what would happen were a powerful hurricane to strike New Orleans; National Geographic had published a story in 2004 describing a hypothetical hurricane strike on New Orleans that was so prescient as to eerily appear to be actually describing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and the first episode of the Weather Channel’s then-new series “It Could Happen Tomorrow”,  was already in the can by mid-2005 and depicted what would happen if a category 5 hurricane made a direct hit on New Orleans.  Hurricane Katrina struck before the episode ever aired.  Then, during the actual Katrina disaster, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff made the comment on live television that “No one could have foreseen this.”

Will this be the response when a massive failure at a lock and dam occurs?  When such a failure does occur, whether it be a dam collapsing, causing the pool below it to rise, damaging docks and flooding low-lying areas and the pool behind it to drop, causing docks to fall, water intakes to become exposed, and leaving the channel depth too low for safe navigation; or a lock wall toppling over or crumbling to rubble, thereby shutting off the river completely for years until a new lock is built, will Congress wake up and provide the necessary funds for speedy and adequate repair, or will they choose to blame Industry and advocacy agencies for not doing enough to call their attention to the problem?  While a failure at a river lock or dam is nowhere near the catastrophic severity of a hurricane landfall in a heavily populated area, it will nevertheless have widespread and long-lasting consequences that will always bear the stigma of a failure that could have been prevented.

When electricity costs go through the roof because coal cannot reach power plants; when several municipalities are faced with water crises because their water intakes are no longer operational; when vehicles are lined up for miles completely gridlocked because hundreds of trucks are suddenly required to bring raw materials to various plants; when unemployment spikes because businesses that rely on waterway transportation cannot, whether for economic or logistical reasons, use another mode are forced to shut down or move elsewhere; when snowy roads in the winter are left untreated because municipalities can no longer afford road salt because the price has tripled since it now has to be brought in by rail or truck, will we hear the same unbelievable excuse that “No one could have foreseen this?”  This situation has been thoroughly publicized through countless studies, reports, newspaper articles, magazine features, and press releases to the point where no one can ever honestly say that they couldn't see this coming.

Monday, April 16, 2012

SPC Mulls Freight (and Waterways) Role in Region

The Southwestern Plan Commission plans the region's transportation future. As a Metropolitan Planning Organization, MPOs are set up to be responsive to local voters. Like MPOs across the nation, they have long heard the refrain "freight don't vote". Our local SPC took steps last week to dispel any lack of interest with its first "Regional Freight Forum".

I had the opportunity, along with the Corps of Engineers and Marshall University, to explain that while freight may not vote, it goes a long way to pay the bills, especially for the 45,000 persons in southwestern PA whose jobs are directly dependent upon the waterways. We also got to discuss the dire condition of our locks and dams and, if nothing is done to correct the situation, how severe the economic impacts for our region could become.

There is an old Chinese proverb that says "Build a road (in our case a waterway), and prosperity will travel on it". Too bad that's a maxim too oft forgot.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Waterway's Local Leaders Meet with Rep. Murphy

Yesterday 25 leaders of the Pittsburgh maritime community met with Congressman Tim Murphy to discuss the really dire conditions developing on the nation's waterways, especially those conditions in the Port of Pittsburgh.

The Congressman made the analogy of the waterways to the patient whose doctor says "you have no alternative, have heart surgery or you will die" and whose insurance company says "you have no alternative, there is no money for your surgery". Increasingly, this story is starting to approximate the real conditions of our locks and dams.

Mike Toohey, from Waterways Council, Inc., reported that there was a way out of this situation, if there is a will to enact it. He expected to see a new bill, "Waterways are Vital for the Economy, Energy, Efficiency and Environment Act of 2012" - or WAVE4 to be introduced soon. WAVE4 would enact the recommendations developed by the Inland Waterway User Board, to fix 25 sets of Locks in 25 years. Over 200 industry groups have signed on to this plan, including a provision that would increase the per gallon tax that the towing industry pays from 20 cents to 29 cents to pay for 50% of the cost of major rehabilitation of our system of Locks.

How the Towing Industry Helps Improve Air Quality

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to attend the Allegheny Health Department - Air Toxic Committee's Public Hearing in Clairton, PA.The improving air quality is one of the well-known success stories of Allegheny County, especially for those old enough to remember when the street lights used to come on in mid-day. No matter how far we have come, there is always room of improvement, but the cost of making incremental improvements becomes harder and harder, and much more expensive, after all of the first targets are met.

One of the innovative measures under consideration by the Committee is a possible recommendation to allow companies with fixed-source emissions, such as factories, to offset any remaining pollution by investing in air quality improvements for mobile sources, such as towboats.

I had the opportunity to explain how waterway transportation is the most energy efficient and least polluting mode of surface transportation and how a single gallon of diesel can move a ton of cargo 616 ton-miles on the river. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, that is nearly 30% more efficient than even the much heralded railroad industry and over 300% more efficient than trucks. The reduction in emissions is equally impressive.

I also suggested that it would deliver a very big environmental bang for the buck if shippers could earn credits by converting their supply chain from truck to barge and even more if they were to invest in upgrading the barge towing equipment from older engines into the very highly efficient modern ones.

The Port of Pittsburgh Commission is already actively working with industry to upgrade vessels. Four engines have already been upgraded and the PPC is working with PennDOT and the Southwestern Plan Commission and hopes to announce new funding soon.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Port's benefits are widespread

The benefits of Port of Pittsburgh activities are recognized well beyond the cargo interests in southwestern Pennsylvania. In this Harrisburg Patriot News op-ed, Mike Toohey, CEO of Waterway Council Inc. states that our river infrastructure also benefits "stable pools of water behind the dams that offer Pennsylvanians drinking water, irrigation and vast recreation opportunities". They also benefit industrial cooling plants and sewage disposal systems.

Waterways Council is an important partner for the Port of Pittsburgh Commission and the Waterways Association of Pittsburgh. They will host their annual Washington meeting February 14-16 2012 at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. General Mike Walsh, Deputy Commanding General for the Corps of Engineers - Civil Works will be the keynote speaker and Rep. Nick Rahall, our neighbor from West Virginia, will be the honoree. Information on the conference can be found at WCI Conference.

Monday, January 16, 2012

House Committee Hears Lock and Dam Woes

Last week, Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch and I appeared before the House Democratic Policy Committee to discuss declining conditions of our transportation infrastructure. While the Secretary was focused primarily on highway issues, his Transportation Finance Advisory Committee did call for the creation of $12 million to $24 million intermodal fund, under which ports would be eligible to compete for funding. More importantly, I was especially pleased with the interest from the Committee about the serious conditions and economic importance of the waterways.

Today, NPR's Pittsburgh affiliate WESA gave the hearing, and especially our lock and dam issue and the role of the PPC, considerable attention. While the lock and dam infrastructure is maintained by the federal government, cost shared with industry, the PPC operational funding comes largely from the Commonwealth. Click here to read their report.