Most of the time freight transportation projects, especially ones that support international trade, get little respect or attention in Washington. Case in point is the nearly decade-long struggle waged by importers and the Customs Service to obtain funding for a system to bring the customs-clearance process into the modern world. That is why it is gratifying to see an initiative not only come to life, but be embraced by an incoming administration when it was launched and nurtured by the previous one of a different political party. Such appears to be the case with the Maritime Transportation System, which was launched by former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and appears to have survived into the Bush administration.

MTS is an effort by the private sector and the more than 15 government agencies with jurisdiction over maritime matters to bring some sense to the process of prioritizing, approving and funding infrastructure projects. It's important that the effort succeed, because without coordination among the disparate federal, state and regional agencies to address port infrastructure, the disruptive gridlock many shippers live with today will be a fond memory in a few years. Persuading members of the Bush administration to see the importance of MTS was the first step.'I would say we have successfully transitioned through the change in administrations,' said Rear Adm. Robert North, the recently retired assistant Coast Guard commandant for marine safety and environmental protection.

The clearest evidence for that comes from Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, who has mentioned his concept of 'SEA-21' twice in recent weeks. The details haven't been sketched out, but the essence is that ports need money to expand to meet the expected doubling of international trade within the next decade or so, and current funding mechanisms are inadequate.

The concept is broadly based on T-21 and AIR-21, recent transportation funding schemes for roads and airports, respectively, though it's not clear that an ongoing funding system such as a trust fund backed by a permanent fee is necessarily the solution.

SEA-21 isn't MTS, but the two are closely related. MTS emerged from a 1999 series of listening sessions and a report issued by Slater. It galvanized agencies as diverse as the Agriculture Department, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency to think about the marine transportation system as a single entity. Yet despite the enthusiasm it generated, no hearings were held and no money was specifically allocated to MTS as a discrete project.

Many thought the report would quickly be relegated to a dusty library shelf. Not only has MTS survived, but the government and private sector standing committees carrying the initiative forward are viable enough to play a key role in helping Mineta develop his concept for SEA-21. Mineta is planning to attend a meeting of the MTS National Advisory Council, headed by Chuck Raymond of CSX Lines, this week at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point.

Where the MTS initiative will play a role is by helping Mineta to refine the SEA-21 concept into recommendations that will be embraced by the Bush administration and stand a fighting chance of achieving consensus within the community and being approved in Congress.

With SEA-21, Mineta 'is starting to put his brand on MTS,' Raymond said. 'He has a good sense that the system as a whole needs to be looked at, not just the various modes, bridges, harbors and ports. SEA-21 is his way of capturing the essence of that.'

No one is saying this process will be easy. At the moment, SEA-21 is Mineta's idea, not a concept approved by the Bush administration. There is nothing in the proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1 that mentions SEA-21. And if there's a 'third rail' of maritime politics, it's the question of who will pay to fund channel dredging -- a question that can't be avoided in any debate over maritime transportation. Would SEA-21 leave intact the Harbor Maintenance Tax? Would it seek to take the proceeds from the tax off budget? Another difficulty is scope. Roads and airports are simple compared to maritime because projects needing attention are clear to everyone involved. In maritime it's not so simple. Should shipbuilding be included alongside marine terminals?

Nevertheless, Mineta should be commended for taking on the issue. The trade community is rooting for him to succeed.

Peter Tirschwell is editor of JoC Week. He can be reached at (973) 848-7158, or via e-mail at ptirschwell