Opportunities Exist to Improve the Effectiveness of Federal Efforts to Support the Marine Transportation System
GAO-13-80: Published: Nov 13, 2012. Publicly Released: Nov 13, 2012.
What GAO Found
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) use a variety of programs to maintain and improve Marine Transportation System (MTS) infrastructure. The Corps is the lead federal agency responsible for maintaining and improving navigable waterways. Corps data show that obligations for navigable waterways have decreased from over $3 billion in fiscal year 2009 to about $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2011. Most annual DOT funding is provided to states through formulas, and states determine which projects to fund. For example, in fiscal year 2011, the Surface Transportation Program provided $9.5 billion to states for a variety of transportation projects, which may have included port improvements. However, because DOT does not specifically track formula funding used to maintain or improve ports or port connectors, officials were unable to provide GAO the extent to which these funds were used for port improvements, although the officials stated that the number of port-specific projects was likely small. Several DOT grant and credit programs can also provide specific funding to ports, though ports are primarily responsible for maintaining and improving infrastructure on port property.
Aging MTS infrastructure, a growing backlog of projects, and the lack of an MTS system-wide prioritization strategy represent key challenges for the Corps and DOT to maintain and improve MTS infrastructure. For example, some structures that support navigation, such as locks, are over 100 years old, and their condition has resulted in deteriorating performance and costly delays to shippers. The Corps and DOT have taken some steps to prioritize their individual funding decisions, but none of these efforts consider MTS infrastructure system-wide. While the Corps is prioritizing projects within its navigation program, DOT has a more limited ability to prioritize funding for port infrastructure projects because the majority of DOT's funding goes to the states where decisions about transportation priorities are made at the state and local level.
Two efforts in particular provide opportunities to improve the effectiveness of federal support to MTS infrastructure. First, the recently enacted Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act requires DOT to develop a National Freight Strategic Plan and to consult with appropriate transportation stakeholders. However, DOT and the Corps have historically had limited coordination involving system-wide MTS investments. Involving the Corps in the development of the National Freight Strategic Plan is particularly important given the critical role navigable waterways play in freight movement. Second, the Committee on the Marine Transportation System (CMTS), a partnership of federal agencies chaired by DOT, has the opportunity to take further actions to help ensure that its 2008 National Strategy for the Marine Transportation System is reviewed and updated to reflect new and emerging challenges, and that its 34 recommendations to improve the MTS are implemented. One recommendation included studying approaches to allocate federal dollars among competing transportation priorities. However, the Strategy has not been reviewed and updated since the CMTS published it in 2008 and it does not incorporate accountability mechanisms, such as identifying desired results or performance measures, for the recommended actions. Such mechanisms would help ensure that the actions CMTS recommended to improve the MTS are indeed implemented.
Why GAO Did This Study
The MTS is integral to the efficient movement of the nation's freight. The MTS includes navigable waterways, ports, and port connectors, such as roads and railways that provide access to the Interstate highway system and the national rail network. According to DOT, approximately 90 percent of America's overseas imports and exports by tonnage move by ship. Consequently, the continued maintenance and improvement of the MTS is essential to sustaining the nation's competitive position in the global economy. This report examines (1) Corps and DOT programs that can be used to maintain or improve the MTS, (2) key challenges to maintaining and improving the MTS, and (3) opportunities to improve the effectiveness of the federal role in the MTS. GAO analyzed information from the Corps and DOT, interviewed relevant agency officials and industry associations, and conducted site visits to six ports--selected based on tonnage, geographic representation, and other factors--to discuss federal, state, and local investment in MTS infrastructure.
What GAO Recommends
DOT should (1) inform the development of the National Freight Strategic Plan with the Corps' planned investments in the nation's navigable waterways and (2) ensure the review and update of the National Strategy for the MTS to include accountability mechanisms for the Strategy's recommended actions. DOT agreed to consider the report's recommendations.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In 2012, GAO reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) use a variety of programs to maintain and improve Marine Transportation System (MTS) infrastructure. The MTS operates in a complex funding environment, with the federal government, state, local, and private entities all playing a role in helping maintain and develop MTS infrastructure. The Corps is the lead federal agency for maintaining and improving navigable waterways, and DOT is the primary federal agency supporting landside infrastructure projects that facilitate the movement of freight to, from, or within ports. DOT and the Corps have historically had limited coordination involving system-wide MTS investments. To improve the effectiveness of federal support to MTS infrastructure, the 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) required DOT to develop a National Freight Strategic Plan and to consult with appropriate transportation stakeholders. To help ensure coordination between critical waterside (Corps) and landside (DOT) infrastructure investments in the MTS, GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation direct the Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to inform the development of the National Freight Strategic Plan with information from the Corps' planned investment in the nation's navigable waterways. In 2017, GAO confirmed that FHWA issued a draft plan in 2015. That plan was available for public comment through April 2016. FHWA solicited and received from the Corps its analysis and data regarding port and waterway resilience, asset management strategies, and prioritization of lock maintenance, which, according to FHWA have been incorporated into the plan. Moreover, the draft plan highlighted that DOT should continue to work with partner agencies, including the Corps, to facilitate freight project planning and implementation. As a result, the coordinated prioritization of landside and waterside infrastructure investment between the Corps and DOT will help better target limited resources for freight infrastructure investment. .
Recommendation: To help ensure coordination of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Transportation infrastructure investments in the Marine Transportation System, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration to inform the development of the National Freight Strategic Plan with information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' planned investments in the nation's navigable waterways.
Agency Affected: Department of Transportation
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In 2012, GAO reported that the Committee on the Marine Transportation System (CMTS) was created to address a broad range of challenges facing the Marine Transportation System (MTS). The CMTS is a long-standing committee designed to foster a partnership of federal agencies with responsibility for the MTS and to provide a forum through which agencies coordinate and take action to address MTS challenges. In July 2008, the CMTS published the National Strategy on the Marine Transportation System to provide a framework and a 5-year action plan to address challenges, including issues involving safety, security, and data sharing, among other things. GAO reported that while CMTS had taken steps to address a number of the recommended 34 actions identified in the Strategy, it was unclear if those actions had achieved their intended results. The Strategy did not incorporate clear desired results, specific milestones, and outcome-related performance measures. While CMTS member agencies took steps to introduce accountability mechanisms through action plans developed by individual Integrated Action Teams, action plans were only developed for those areas or activities where consensus existed among agencies to establish them, which was a good first steps. However, without a clearly defined and articulated "end-state" for each recommended action, it was difficult to evaluate the extent to which progress had been made or determine whether the CMTS was achieving its intended results. GAO also reported that the CMTS does not have a process for reporting the extent to which the Strategy's recommended actions have been addressed. Such a process could have enabled more effective oversight and accountability. Although the CMTS created reports in 2009 and 2010, these reports describe its annual accomplishments and do not address all of the Strategy's recommended actions. Therefore, GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation, as Chair of the CMTS, update the National Strategy for the Marine Transportation System and include: 1) accountability mechanisms, such as performance measures, in a revised Strategy to ensure that the actions CMTS recommends to improve the MTS are implemented; and, 2) report progress in addressing the recommended actions of the National Strategy for the Marine Transportation System. In February 2018, GAO confirmed that the CMTS issued an updated strategy entitled National Strategy for the Marine Transportation System: Channeling the Maritime Advantage 2017-2022. The Strategy establishes a new policy framework to support the MTS through: optimizing system performance; enhancing maritime safety; supporting maritime security; advancing energy innovation and development; and, facilitating infrastructure investment. Specifically, the new Strategy incorporates 14 actions with accompanying performance metrics to track and show progress toward achieving each priority area. The CMTS will assist in coordinating and tracking the actions and measures via existing mechanisms, such as through the Integrated Action Teams. Moreover, the new Strategy includes an appendix describing the progress made in addressing 27 of the 34 actions outline in the original 2008 Strategy. CMTS will align its current and future annual work plans with the strategy to enable the tracking and reporting of actions and measures through existing CMTS mechanisms and teams. By updating the National Strategy with accountability mechanisms and a progress report, the CMTS has taken steps to identify MTS's most important challenges to help ensure member agencies remain focused on key priorities as well as provide both agency and Congressional decision-makers the information they needed to hold the agencies accountable.
Recommendation: As the Chair of the Committee on the Marine Transportation System, the Secretary of Transportation should ensure the review and update, as needed, of the National Strategy for the Marine Transportation System. In ensuring the review and update of the National Strategy for the Marine Transportation System, the Secretary should (1) establish accountability mechanisms--such as developing clear and desired results, specific milestones, and outcome-related performance measures--for the recommended actions of the National Strategy for the Marine Transportation System, and (2) establish and implement a schedule for regular reporting of progress made in addressing the recommended actions of the National Strategy for the Marine Transportation System.
Agency Affected: Department of Transportation