Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Ferries Opinion: Federal Promotion of Ferries is Goal of Legislation

By Ed Welch

Legislation supporting ferry transportation in the United States was introduced in Congress on May 12, 2011. The bill is the United States Ferry Systems Investment Act of 2011 (S. 980 in the Senate, H.R. 1879 in the House).

Sponsors of S. 980 are the Senators from Washington (Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell) and Alaska (Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich). Congressman Rick Larsen of Washington State is the lead sponsor of the House bill; he is joined by twelve cosponsors.

The US Ferry Systems Investment Act proposes a significant expansion of federal attention to ferry transportation. The legislation features a big increase in funding for the existing Federal Ferry Boat Discretionary Grant Program administered by the Federal Highway Administration. This program provides competitive federal grants for up to 80 percent of the capital expenditures for ferry vessels, terminals and other shoreside infrastructure, and maintenance facilities. To be eligible, a ferry must be publicly owned or publicly operated. Eligibility also exists if the ferry is majority-publicly-owned and is determined to provide substantial public benefits. For the current fiscal year 2011, the existing grant program was authorized at $67 million per year, with $20 million of that sum reserved for systems in the states of Washington, Alaska, and New Jersey.

The legislation contains eleven findings. Among them are:
  • Ferries are a vital part of the nation’s transportation system, carrying more than 100 million passengers annually in at least 38 states;
  • In many metropolitan areas, ferries are an option for significant expansion of transportation capacity;
  • Ferries connect many islands and isolated communities;
  • Ferries offer an emergency evacuation alternative (for example, the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York) and can also provide interim transportation solutions when other transportation infrastructure is disabled (for example, the San Francisco earthquake);
  • Ferries offer a relatively energy-efficient, environmentally friendly, and low-stress mode of travel; and
  • Existing ferry vessels and infrastructure are aging.

Under the proposed legislation, annual funding for the ferry grants program would be expanded to $200 million for each of fiscal years 2012 through 2018. In addition, the bill would change how the funds are to be distributed. The money would be divided into two “pots” of $100 million each.

The first “pot” would be distributed according to a weighted formula, whose factors would be: 50 percent based on total annual number of passengers carried by a ferry system; 25 percent based on total number of vehicles carried by a ferry system; and 25 percent based on total route miles serviced by a ferry system. This last factor is a bit ambiguous; does it mean the length of the route in miles, or does it mean the cumulative number of miles actually traveled by the ferry vessels over the year?

The second “pot” of $100 million will be distributed competitively by the US Secretary of Transportation. This replicates the competitive process by which $47 million of the existing program is to be awarded. In many years, however, a substantial portion of these grants are awarded by means of annual Congressional “earmarks,” a process that favors applicants that are politically well connected. In recent years, the amount of funds directed by “earmarks” has diminished and in the current fiscal year, Congress has eschewed any “earmarks” whatsoever.

Because the Congressional sponsors have concluded that “ferries do not fit neatly into other Federal mode-specific transportation programs,” the bill mandates the establishment of a Ferry Joint Program Office within the US Department of Transportation. Its missions would be to promote ferry transportation within the US and to coordinate federal programs affecting the construction, maintenance, operations, and security of ferry vessels and facilities.

The existing Clean Fuels Grant Program makes grants available for obtaining clean fuel buses for operation in certain areas with air quality problems. The US Ferry Systems Investment Act would amend the law so that these grants could be used for ferries as well.

The federal government has established special institutes at certain US colleges that do research on other modes of transportation. The legislation would direct that a similar National Ferry Institute be created for the purposes of research on ferry transportation, development of training programs for ferry employees, enhance ferry security models, and the preservation of historical information on ferry transportation.

The bill extends, through the year 2018, the requirement that the Bureau of Transportation Statistics maintain the National Ferry Database and directs that its data be presented in a format consistent with the national transit database maintained by the Federal Transit Administration. The information obtained in this biennial survey of ferry operators can be found at www.bts.gov; under the “Data and Statistics” category, click on the link entitled “Ferry – National Census of Ferry Operators.”

In announcing the legislation, Senator Murray said, “Many residents in my home state of Washington depend on ferries to bring them to work and back home safely to their families, so they know the importance of a strong ferry system.” Senator Murkowski noted, “This bill is an economic engine and improves our way of life, from Dutch Harbor to Metlakatla.” Senator Begich observed, “It’s not uncommon for an Alaskan in the Aleutians or Southeast to always have next week’s ferry schedule memorized as ferries help families stay connected and serve vital business purposes.” Congressman Larsen emphasized, “We must invest in our ferry system to create good jobs, promote long-term economic growth, and help ensure that the folks who rely on ferries to get to work are traveling safely and efficiently.”

The new legislation is nearly identical to a bill introduced in the prior Congress in 2009 but never acted upon.

The bill’s fate is likely dependent on whether or not Congress can enact a comprehensive highway and transit bill. If so, the ferry legislation might possibly be included as a part of the larger legislation. However, some leaders of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure have suggested that one feature of a comprehensive highway and transit bill might be the consolidation of “categorical” grants such as ferry grants into large bloc grants, giving states the ability to apply them to whatever transportation priorities they deem desirable. This would likely be to the detriment of ferry systems, as proponents of highway construction usually have far more political clout in the various state capitals.

For a copy of the legislation, please send an email request to ewelch@passengervessel.com.

Ed Welch is the Legislative Director of the Passenger Vessel Association (PVA), the national trade association representing owners and operators of US-flagged commercial passenger vessels of all types. A previous version of this article appeared in the June 2011 issue of PVA’s Monthly magazine, FOGHORN.