A Bridge Too Far?

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, asks transportation interests to “stick with me” on a path to infrastructure investment. He realizes the challenges he faces with getting the money needed to address critical infrastructure requirements, and he needs the help of some heavy-hitting companies and corporations to get any of it done.

One would have hoped that two years ago, when the government decided to spend a trillion dollars or so to jump-start the economy, it would have addressed those “shovel-ready projects” the president told us about. It sounds a lot like other things we’re told will happen that never do.

I’m going to limit my remarks here to those projects relating to ports — my editors won’t let me write enough words to cover all of the infrastructure issues. Besides, there are great Journal of Commerce writers who have covered much of it.

The first thing to get my attention was Mica saying the first order of business for his committee would be to write a sweeping spending bill. And he gets to do it with 19 new committee members — all Republicans.

Because none of those new members ran their campaigns on a platform of “let’s spend hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure,” it’s pretty safe to say they won’t be addressing many of the needs in the next few years.

And, in thinking about it, what would these 19 new members do to get up to speed on the issues? Maybe there’s a national plan addressing port issues they can read. We’ve been at this for decades, after all, so there must be a plan somewhere detailing the national goals and objectives for our ports. Surely the government has considered the vast coastlines the United States has, the immense economic impact trade has on the country, and the critical role ports play to facilitate those activities.

So there should be some comfort in knowing there is a well-thought-out, well-written and clearly defined national plan for our ports, right?

Reality check: Ports get federal money through congressmen and women exchanging votes — you support my bill to build a bridge-to-nowhere and I’ll support your bill to study the impact woodpeckers have on hardwood trees. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.

Ports get funds through operations, leasing land, from state and local governments as well as the federal government. In essence, they compete with each other for funding, they create their own plans, and they have their own board of directors, their own management teams — and virtually no direction from the federal government.

Compare this to China, which happens to have eight of the largest most modern, efficient and effective ports in the world, and they are still growing (See The Journal of Commerce Top 50 Global Container Ports, /sites/default/files/joc_inc/pdf/Special_Ports_pages%2024-32.pdf).

Less than 30 years ago, only Shanghai had a reasonably sized and effective port facility in China. Shenzhen, the world’s fourth-largest container port today, was a fishing village. But plans, with a national focus to support economic growth, poured out of the Chinese government.

Where there was nothing but water, the country literally moved mountains and built Shenzhen and other facilities in the south. With its economy growing rapidly and expansively, the country built a bridge to somewhere: Yangshan.

All of this was planned, and executed, based on the nation’s needs, not the whim of local politicians.

Recognizing that there will be limited funds available for the next few years as the nation climbs out of a financial crisis, might Mica and his committee stop, take a deep breath and spend time to create a national plan built around the theory of doing what’s best for the nation, and ask, “Where can we get the most bang for our buck? Where can we avoid redundant and unnecessary overbuilding of facilities?”

Might that be the best use of the time they have, creating a truly nationally focused plan to upgrade our ports to world class, in support of our national economic interest? Or is creating a national plan and a set of strategies so foreign to our political system that we’re incapable of doing it?

Gary Ferrulli is president of Global Logistics Consulting in Chandler, Ariz. Contact him at ferrullig@mindspring.com.

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