What I Learned From FMC Commissioner Cordero

Tonight, I had the pleasure of heading after work to the offices of Foster Pepper PLLC for their 2nd Annual Washington Transportation Industry Reception. Not that I wouldn’t have gone anyway (I do love to schmooze with transportation industry stakeholders, as you know), but this one was of particular interest. Why? Because it featured keynote remarks from Federal Maritime Commissioner Mario Cordero.

Now, if you’ve followed the State of Trade blog for any length of time, you can probably guess why I might be interested in hearing from an FMC Commissioner. In fact, you don’t have to go back very far…it was the last post on this blog, celebrating the Federal Maritime Commission’s finding that the Harbor Maintenance Tax does indeed divert cargo from Washington to Canada! (As we already knew, of course.)

So, what did Commissioner Cordero say? Two very, very interesting things:

First, he spent a lot of time praising Canada’s national freight investment strategy, and pointing out that the United States is finally moving in the right direction with the inclusion of a National Freight Strategy in the recent federal surface transportation funding bill. I happen to agree, and it’s fantastic that this is not only legislative language, but an active effort: thanks in large part to Senator Cantwell’s efforts, the USDOT recently announced the formation of a National Freight Council (modeled on Washington’s own Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board) to carry out this mission.

Second, and perhaps even more important for Washington, was his discussion of the FMC’s Harbor Maintenance Tax study. He was quite forceful in saying that – in his mind – the biggest issue is that of unequal return for donor ports (those ports like Seattle and Tacoma that only get a penny on the dollar in HMT investments compared to how much HMT is collected from ships using their terminals). And he also had a solution: greater investment in “donor ports”, in part through expanded use of HMT dollars. For example, if Port of Tacoma doesn’t need dredging dollars, let them use the money for related waterfront and freight mobility investments.

Strong words for a Commissioner, and exciting ones for Puget Sound trade and maritime stakeholders who want to see increased competitiveness for the region in the global competition for cargo.

One last point that I thought was interesting (yes, I know I said there were only two things, but I can’t stop myself). When I asked Cordero what one thing he would put in a national freight strategy, he said that – if he were from the Puget Sound – he’d strive to put an explicit reference to the donor port issue in. Which makes sense if you think about it: you need strong, competitive ports in order to even need an effective freight mobility system in the first place.

So, thanks to Foster Pepper (a WCIT member, of course) for hosting the event; it could very well be a key step in Washington’s ongoing effort to reform the Harbor Maintenance Tax to better support our state’s trade economy.

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