Commentary: Port Projects Fast-Tracked, Finally

Let’s give credit where credit is due. With the stroke of a pen, President Obama on July 18 signed an executive order that improved prospects that five major East Coast ports will be ready or at least a lot closer to being ready to handle the larger vessels that will start coming through the Panama Canal when its new locks open to commercial traffic sometime in 2015.

The president put seven huge port projects at the top of a new list of projects to be fast-tracked through the federal agencies that must review their economic return on investment and environmental impact before they can get permits to start construction.

“Today’s commitment to move these port projects forward faster will help drive job growth and strengthen the economy,” Obama said.

He deserves credit for his action, but the real credit for this worthy initiative goes to the port officials and state and local politicians who have been fighting to secure the payoff for their regions that expanded port infrastructure will bring in terms of jobs and economic activity.

They are following the path beaten by Georgia’s political leaders, especially former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who championed the Port of Savannah as an economic engine for the state early in his administration. The Savannah harbor deepening project, which Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis Foltz has been shepherding through a number of environmental hurdles, landed on the fast-track list. So did the project to deepen the harbor in Charleston, where Jim Newsome, CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authority, has been fighting to speed up the drawn-out process of getting federal approvals.

In Florida, Paul Anderson, who took over as CEO of the Jacksonville Port Authority in 2011, rallied Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other political leaders behind plans to deepen the St. John’s River and build a new rail terminal on Dames Point next to the TraPac container terminal and a planned Hanjin terminal. Miami Port Authority Director Bill Johnson also deserves credit for lining up local support for his port’s ambitious expansion program. Both Jaxport projects and the deepening of Miami harbor to 50 feet landed on the fast-track list for federal reviews.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and political leaders in both states saw their efforts to line up federal support for raising the Bayonne Bridge rewarded when that $1 billion project landed on the list, as did the last few contracts in the port’s decade-long harbor-deepening project. Both will be completed by the time the new Panama locks open in 2015.

But port supporters at all levels can’t rest on their laurels. They need to hold Washington’s feet to the fire to stick to the aggressive fast-track schedule and to secure funding for these critical economic projects.

Contact Peter T. Leach at Follow him on Twitter @petertleach.

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