Politicizing Marine Safety Never a Good Idea
As the Massachusetts Legislature tightens its death grip around the port of Boston, a key 'niche' intermodal hub in the northeast teeters on the brink of obsolescence.
I owe everyone an apology this week. Last week, as a sign-off from my weekly column, I trumpeted, "Massachusetts legislators vote to move Boston Harbor to Long Island Sound. Stay tuned!" Now, everyone knows that you can't vote to physically move a port from one place to another. That's just silly. The port of Boston will always reside right where it is at, just as it has for the past 400 years. Twenty years from now, however, and if the current situation on Beacon Hill does not radically change, Boston's waterfront will consist primarily of luxury, pier side condominiums, trendy shops and maybe a pleasure boat marina or two. It doesn't have to be this way.
As one of the more unusual ports in the country, and not coincidentally one of its safest, Boston is home to a myriad of cargo interests, from LNG to automobiles to gasoline and a raft of other miscellaneous goods. A popular and profitable cruise ship trade also makes port calls here. The port will never be a major cargo hub, but it is a key cog in the local MASSPORT machine and is, in no small part, important to local economy. The past three years have seen much turmoil in the harbor, most of it based around local disputes centering on who should and should not dock vessels, under what authority that might occur and at what price and under what conditions all of that might happen. But, there's more than one issue on table.
At issue (and most visible) is the question of whether the Commonwealth should license local so-called "docking masters," especially in the roiled wake of the COSCO BUSAN incident. The local contractors – most of whom work for one local tug boat company – dock and undock large, deep draft traffic. None of them are certificated by the state to do so. Boston marine pilots, in contrast, all licensed by the state, guide traffic in and out Boston. They are also qualified to dock and undock these vessels, and often do so. To my knowledge, there hasn't been a single accident of note associated with the pilots over the course of the last ten years. They charge the state-mandated fee of $350 per movement to dock or undock vessels; a private docking master bill can triple that amount.
Few in the Boston maritime community would dispute that the local, so-called docking masters should be licensed in Massachusetts. That they are allowed to direct ships without these certifications arguably leaves the Commonwealth open to significant liability on the very waters that they are supposed to be controlling commerce. The problem stems from the terms under which docking masters could eventually be licensed. These individuals want to remain virtually independent of the existing regulatory environment, charge fees to shippers unencumbered by state oversight and operate under conditions that would exclude them from the same degree of liability that local harbor pilots toil under. With few exceptions, the balance of the waterfront community opposes these terms.
The effort to certify the docking masters has failed miserably in the past, and when bill(s) tailored to meet the criteria of the docking masters have been turned aside in the Legislature, attempts to attach similar language to other, unrelated bills have become the weapon of choice. At the same time, the local harbor pilots are desperately trying to enact the first fee increase in ten years for local pilotage. That effort remains stymied and the bill held hostage in the State House. Today, special interests have attached a rider to that bill which would likely signal the end of competitive vetting of future pilot candidates. The implications for the port of Boston, down the road, are ominous.
The proposed rider to Pilot's rate bill (S 515) reads as follows: "…the pilot commission shall adopt regulations providing for preference to veterans as defined in clause Forty-third of section 7 of chapter 4 of the General Laws and those who were honorably discharged from or currently serving in the Armed Forces of the United States, including the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Officer (sic) Corps. If an active duty member or veteran applicant has a valid United States Coast Guard-issued Unlimited (sic) Master's License or First Class Federal Pilotage endorsement for any part of Boston Harbor, he shall be eligible for preference for appointment as a state-commissioned pilot apprentice." In general terms, the provisions of this language are tailored specifically for one or two individuals who probably could not otherwise make the bar. If the language is enacted, any individual with veteran status with twelve trips in and out of the harbor will now move to the front of queue, regardless of his or her experience in matters of shiphandling or other related skillsets.
The proposed amendment has put the local pilot association in an unenviable position. Like their Coast Guard brethren who were, earlier this year, reluctantly forced to oppose their own authorization bill due to several flawed amendments, the Boston Marine Pilots may now be forced to abandon a pay raise or allow the beginning of the degradation of local pilot skills. The proposed "preference" language, wrapped in red, white and blue, will not serve the common good in terms of safety, transparency of the pilot selection process, or the needs of a port that needs to continue to show itself as a safe and attractive place to deliver and load cargo. At a time when the national scrutiny of pilot credentials and certifications is ramping up significantly, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is preparing to dumb down the curriculum.
The future of Boston Harbor as a viable commercial cargo hub can be summed up neatly by three matters now before the state legislature; namely, (a.) the licensing of docking masters, (b.) a rate hike for the local marine pilots, and (c.) an effort to politicize the selection of future marine pilots. And, the rate bill isn't going anywhere unless everyone else gets what they want. In the meantime, the ability of local pilots to adequately fund the infrastructure necessary to a safe and efficient pilotage system has been seriously crippled.
No doubt, the laughter in Portland, ME, Providence, RI and other nearby ports carries long and loud across the water. And, if anyone doubts the errant course that Massachusetts find itself headed on, they need to look no farther than Long Island Sound, where 25 years of benign regulatory neglect has left the pilot system in organizational shambles, with no viable apprentice candidates to take the place of the remaining pilots when the bulk of them reach retirement age in the not-too-distant future.
Within the past two weeks, a bill designed to eliminate the Harbor Maintenance Tax was introduced in Washington. The bipartisan legislation, introduced in the U.S. Senate, would exempt coastwise shipping of containerized cargo from the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT). Stated simply, the law, if enacted, would almost instantly revitalize the domestic, so-called "Shortsea Shipping" trades. The effort is right at the top of the U.S. Maritime Administration's wish list and Transportation Secretary and highway guru Mary Peters has to be absolutely delighted at the fact that the bill is now in play.
For Massachusetts, the exemption could remove literally tens of thousands of trucks from its highways that emanate up and down the I-95 & 128 corridor daily. The savings in air emissions, related health problems, highway wear and tear and a thousand other things would be substantial. For the port of Boston, a relatively shallow draft niche port, the change would be even more significant. Suddenly, commerce on coastwise, handy-sized vessels would explode and the port would be a logical place to bring that traffic. If only someone on Beacon Hill was listening…
I thought about writing a fiction piece this week depicting the events that would precede the death of a port. In the end, I knew that the real story in Boston, if written by Hollywood playwrights, wouldn't get much play in theatres, because it is just so unbelievable. In Arthur Miller's masterpiece, "Death of a Salesman", the main character, Willy Loman, is (arguably) used to illustrate how compromised ideals and missed opportunities could eventually yield tragic results. It is not a stretch to say that the same thing is underway in the Bay State. It IS silly to think that a port can be "voted" from one place to another. But, that won't stop Massachusetts legislators, spurred on by well-funded special interests, from trying. – MarEx
Joseph Keefe is the Managing Editor of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. A native of the Bay State, Keefe has followed and reported on the situation in Boston and Long Island Sound extensively over the past three years. He can be reached with comments on this or any other article in this e-newsletter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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