Not all that long ago U.S. ports—principally through the public port authorities—were minor and largely absent players in the Federal transportation policy discussion. Maritime policy and programs were about vessels. Federal funding for ports came in the form of the system of navigation channels constructed and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works program. Even in that instance, appropriated funds didn’t go to the port entities.
In its early years the U.S. Department of Transportation was all about building the interstate highway system and tending to railroads, aviation and mass transit. Not until 1981 was the Maritime Administration moved into USDOT and even then it was concerned with vessels, not ports and harbors. By 1980 only a handful of ports had Washington representation focused on Capitol Hill and transportation policy development. That would change.
Transportation regulation was transitioning to deregulation. By the close of 1978 deregulation took hold; railroad, trucking and aviation policy was being reshaped. The Shipping Act of 1984 took the maritime sector a few steps in that direction but greater reforms had to wait until 1998. Some ports were very interested parties as Congress ushered in deregulation but it was not until the mid-eighties when ports stepped into the center ring of Washington policy deliberations.
It was over the crucial issue of navigation channels and whether Congress and the White House would finally approve overdue water resources legislation and allow projects to proceed. For that to happen, ports were told, someone would have to offset federal costs. The issues divided port authorities who understood what was at stake. That there would have to be a sharing of construction costs almost mattered less than how a new user fee would be applied. By cargo value or cargo volume? Opposing coalitions formed. When the dust settled the landmark Water Resources Development Act of 1986 became law and the Harbor Maintenance Tax and a Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund were created.
In the years that followed there was more to unify ports than to divide them. Federal policy slowly adjusted to include marine terminals and intermodal facilities as eligible for grants. More port authorities saw the value of having their own persons on the ground in Washington to protect their interests and help advocate for the larger port community. Active trade groups, including the American Association of Port Authorities, now had allies to amplify the port message.
Paul Bea was on hand for this evolution of port policy and was involved in much of it, including the WRDA 1986 debate. In 1985, he brought together the few port lobbyists in D.C. to talk about shared issues. Thirty years later the Washington Port Reps group, now considerably larger, continues to meet, share intelligence and look for opportunities to work in concert for the seaport sector in Washington. Today, as then, Paul hosts the gathering.
For an expanded discussion of the above see Ports Then, Ports Now in MTS Matters.