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Obamas New Deal: Good Deal, No Deal or the Real Deal?

Transportation, Coast Guard, Shipbuilding and MARAD Projects all hit pay dirt, but what’s the bottom line?

When President Barack Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus bill into law on Tuesday, it set my mind to thinking. The modern day version of the New Deal is clearly well underway. President Obama says the measure will create 3.5 million jobs and re-energize the suffering U.S. economy. I don’t know about all of that, but the injection of capital into the nation’s infrastructure is a welcome development, especially in terms of maritime projects. It is rare to see this type of attention heaped on the collective waterfront and although it took a global financial meltdown to get it done, I’m guessing that maritime executives everywhere will take what they can get. And, what a package!

Obama’s maritime cornucopia runneth over. For example, the conferees provide $160,000,000 for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), $98,000,000 to the Coast Guard for Acquisition, Construction, and Improvements (instead of $450,000,000 as proposed by the Senate) and another $142,000,000 for Alteration of Bridges – a figure that the Coast Guard estimates will create approximately 1,200 jobs. NOAA got $230,000,000 for a host of tasks, and the MISSISSIPPI RIVER AND TRIBUTARIES were awarded an additional $375,000,000 (for what, I don’t know, but that’s a lot of money). No doubt Cornel Martin, President and CEO of the Waterways Council will be happy with all of that.

It gets even better: The Maritime Administration, under the broad category of SUPPLEMENTAL GRANTS FOR ASSISTANCE TO SMALL SHIPYARDS received the princely sum of $100,000,000, intended as grants to small shipyards. This amount, in comparison, dwarfs the $9.8 million in grants given to 19 domestic shipyards last April. Nominally, this is good news for American shipyards looking at far emptier order books this April. And, another $600,000,000 is slotted for the construction and repair of NOAA facilities, ships and equipment, to improve weather forecasting and to support satellite development. At the point that I found the staggering additional $4,600,000,000 intended for the Corps of Engineers, I stopped counting.

It all sounds good. But, who’s going to pay for it, and when will that happen? No worries, I think that I know the answer: According to North Carolina state records, “The objectives of the Civilian Conservation Corps were two-fold; utilization of the country's human resources and conservation of the country's physical resources. These objectives were realized by employing thousands of young men between the ages of 18 and 25 in jobs that were a benefit to conservation, restoration and protection of forests, control of soil erosion and flood control, development of public parks, recreational and historic areas, wild life conservation and other useful public works. The Department of War was responsible for physical examination, enrollment, equipping and conditioning of the men. The Departments of Agriculture and the Interior were responsible for the selection and planning of work projects on national forests, parks, monuments, soil erosion control and the supervision of all projects on state and private lands and state parks. The North Carolina Emergency Relief oversaw local selecting agencies throughout the state to execute the details necessary to placing the men in camps. Of the total 66 camps, 28 were assigned to forest protection and preservation, 22 to soil erosion control, 9 to park projects, 3 to military reservations, 1 to wild life conservation and 3 to Tennessee Valley Authority projects.” Sounds a little like the stimulus package to me.

Here in North Carolina, and once the weather gets a little nicer, we pack up the car most weekends and head to our scruffy little cabin nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains about 57 miles north of Asheville. As we hike (the children consider these activities to be forced death marches) from Mount Mitchell to the Roan, one common variable is always present. Most of the infrastructure in the parks is usually from the CCC era, when thousands of men were given work under the broad umbrella of the so-called New Deal of the Roosevelt era. Indeed, they built the Blue Ridge Parkway and many of the state and federal accoutrements that we use today.

I do have a point here, and I’m getting around to it. We in the maritime community typically bemoan the lack of attention – and resources – given to the domestic marine transportation system. Given the numbers available to me at this time, it certainly looks like this year will be the exception to that rule. And we’ve been blessed with probably the best Maritime Administrator in recent memory over the last two years. Frankly, I wish he was still on board to shepherd this money to the right places and people. Nevertheless, this is our time to shine; the bad economy notwithstanding.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Obama’s “New Deal,” is poised to make a difference in the domestic maritime sectors. I’m sure of that. The bill does have its warts. And, I suppose you could argue (quite convincingly) that the cost of the bill is outrageous and the ultimate burden placed on the taxpayers unfair. But, we seemed to have survived President Roosevelt’s spending spree just fine and some of those infrastructure projects completed under the guise of “make work” stimulus are still around today; many of them still important and still in use. Let’s assume for a minute that all of this is going to work. And, why not? They say history repeats itself. I’m betting that the “make work” results won’t be much different this time around. – MarEx.

Joseph Keefe is the Editor in Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial or any other piece in this e-newsletter at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com. He also hopes he got the numbers right – it wasn’t easy reading.