January 2013 Issue
The Future of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation is Now
Chairman, U.S. House Coast Guard and
Maritime Transportation Subcommittee
In the January 2012 edition of Sea Technology magazine, I outlined the challenges facing the U.S. House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee in providing the U.S. Coast Guard with stable funding, maintaining personnel levels, reforming the service's authorities and improving operations to reduce costs and inefficiencies.
One year later, the difficulties of trying to balance shrinking federal budgets with growing maintenance costs for an aging fleet remain and, in some ways, have been compounded by Congress' delay in passing a multiyear Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Authorization Act. The onus again falls on the subcommittee to protect the Coast Guard from budgetary politics of Capitol Hill while positioning the service to continue to meet the needs of its current myriad missions and future demands.
Finding Funding to Replace Aging Assets
Continuing work from the 112th Congress, the subcommittee will further review the challenges the Coast Guard faces maintaining its legacy assets and examine how those challenges impact the service's mission performance.
Reports by the Government Accountability Office and others over the years have shown the rapid decline of legacy assets is causing the Coast Guard to fall short of its operational targets, forcing the service to spend too much of its tight budget on maintenance and undermining the success of its safety and security missions. This is a serious problem that continues to grow with each fiscal year.
Worsening the situation is the budget stalemate on Capitol Hill that resulted in continuing resolutions to fund the government, the Senate's inability to pass annual appropriations and President Barack Obama's proposed fiscal year 2013 budget for the Coast Guard.
The budget request, in particular, would exacerbate the growing patrol boat mission hour gap by ending high-tempo, high-maintenance operations and retiring vessels before their replacements arrive. It would also slash funding for critically-needed replacement assets by $272 million—a 19 percent reduction below the existing level. This would significantly delay the acquisition of essential replacement assets, including fast-response cutters, national security cutters, maritime patrol aircraft and long-range surveillance aircraft. President Obama's budget request also proposed to put off important upgrades to the Jayhawk helicopter fleet and delay sustainment projects on buoy tenders.
Fortunately, members of the Appropriations Committee have found the dollars to reverse these draconian cuts. But how long that will remain is unknown.
However, the problem remains because as Congress—and, thereby, the taxpayers—is forced to pour more money into maintaining rapidly failing legacy assets, there is less available for replacement assets. Putting off the acquisition of new assets only increases the strain on legacy assets. Former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen used to call this the 'death spiral.'
While the Coast Guard has taken steps to improve the conditions of its legacy fleet and the efficiency of its maintenance command, more needs to be done with time running out.
Marine Transportation Infrastructure
Regrettably, the nation's maritime transportation infrastructure is also lagging behind, threatening billions of dollars in revenue for the U.S. and jobs for American workers.
With the scheduled 2014 completion of the Panama Canal expansion, trans-Pacific cargo ships will have access to East Coast and Gulf Coast ports without offloading to rail. The New Panamax ships have the ability to carry more imports and exports between the U.S. and markets in Asia and the South Pacific, increasing economic opportunities for U.S. businesses abroad. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Association of Port Authorities estimated that for every $1 billion in exports shipped through the nation's seaports, 15,000 jobs are created.
However, as it stands, only the port in Norfolk, Virginia, is capable of handling the wider, heavier ships. Major East Coast ports such as the Port of New York and New Jersey, and the Port of Baltimore have the necessary depth of their harbors but have yet to address structural complications preventing the cargo from reaching the docks. Conversely, ports in Miami, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Charleston, South Carolina, are facing shortfalls in funding the required dredging projects in order to accept the ships. Failure to be prepared for New Panamax ships will put U.S. businesses at a disadvantage in global commerce. International trade already accounts for more than a quarter of our gross domestic product.
In the 112th Congress, the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee took decisive action to promote economic opportunities and efficiencies in the maritime sector. The subcommittee approved a reauthorization of the Federal Maritime Commission through fiscal year 2014 and will continue to work with the Maritime Administration to streamline and improve its operations. Recognizing the economic benefits of a robust maritime sector, the subcommittee sought to partner with industry to move forward.
At a Crossroads
In the 113th Congress, the subcommittee will work with its colleagues on the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee to address the $2.2 billion backlog of current harbor maintenance and deepening projects at key ports. Other priorities will center on ensuring the $7 billion Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is spent to strengthen the maritime transportation network, and protecting and expanding on the 13.3 million jobs already supported by the nation's ports and waterways.
The 113th Congress will offer the opportunity to address the issues that the Coast Guard and U.S. maritime sector have long faced. These issues surrounding the Coast Guard and port infrastructure have reached a crossroads: Will policymakers allow the Coast Guard to sink under its own weight of unusable assets, endangering service personnel, public safety and homeland security? Will they allow the maritime sector to be weakened as global commerce and trade is strengthened?
While Congress has historically kicked the can down the road, the end of the road has been reached. However, the subcommittee will need willing partners in the Senate and the executive branch to make the hard decisions that will position the U.S. for the future.