Amid Puerto Rico debate, former UConn Avery Point director backs Jones Act

The U.S. maritime industry has recruited the presidents of the six state maritime academies to wage an advocacy campaign for the nearly century-old Jones Act, which says that goods being shipped between U.S. ports must be transported on ships owned, built and crewed by Americans.

Among those involved in the advocacy campaign is Michael Alfultis, the former director of the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus.

"We wanted to have a counter voice in all of this," said Alfultis, a retired Coast Guard captain who is now president of the State University of New York Maritime College, of efforts to repeal the law.

Recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria, have renewed a debate about the merit of the law and whether it should be repealed. Many argued that it is hampering recovery efforts on the island by slowing down the delivery of supplies and costing Puerto Ricans more for goods.

U.S.-flag ships cost nearly three times more to operate than their foreign competitors due to labor and benefits costs, according to a study sponsored by the U.S. Maritime Administration. And critics of the law say it places unnecessary restrictions on an island that relies heavily on the transport of fuel and other supplies.

The Trump administration waived the Jones Act for 10 days to expand access to and speed up the delivery of supplies. But some federal lawmakers argued that wasn't enough time to help alleviate the crisis on the island, and pushed for a one-year waiver.

Alfultis and his counterparts argue the law is key to maintaining a viable maritime industry, which means jobs for their students, and also contributes to national security and the domestic economy.

The U.S. maritime industry supports about a half-million jobs, and pumps $100 billion annually into the nation's economy, according to Alfultis. He also pointed to the role of commercial ships providing logistical support to the U.S. military, especially in times when there's a surge in activity.

On the one hand, the law doubles the prices of consumer goods in Puerto Rico, but at the same time it provides some protections to Puerto Rican businesses that would not otherwise be available, said Charles R. Venator-Santiago, an associate professor at UConn who focuses on U.S. territorial law.

Take the local fish industry, for example. Without the law, local fishers wouldn't be able to complete with large global fish harvesters like China or Vietnam.

Venator-Santiago sees targeted waivers for certain kinds of goods as one solution to the Jones Act dilemma.

Politicians in Puerto Rico have argued that the higher price of goods for consumers, because of the law, has a cumulative effect on the island's economy. Puerto Rico is $73 billion in debt.

Some of the arguments in contention can't be addressed directly because certain shipping data is not publicly available, said Edwin Meléndez, the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.

"Why don't we enact a law that requires the industry to disclose transaction data just like we do with airplanes. ... Why is it that we don't have data on transaction costs on shipping to and from Puerto Rico?" he asked.

j.bergman@theday.com

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