A healthy thriving port often faces the challenge to remain so, due to the different ways it can be viewed. On the one hand, ports are comprised of private businesses that need to survive and move forward on their own two feet, without reliance on a public safety net unavailable to other businesses. On the other hand, ports are also counted upon to generate jobs and other economic impact in their regions, using public assets such as wharves, berths, warehousing, highways and shipping channels. To that end, some dedicated public support is usually hoped for to keep those assets up and running, in order for a port and the elements within in it to be able to properly do their jobs.
Therefore, in today’s maritime industry, our particular challenge is to change any lingering views that if a port can’t survive without any government subsidy or funding, then it must be an inefficient operation that doesn’t deserve to exist. We in the industry face this challenge every day. We know that ports in many ways are unique animals, requiring an efficient formula of public and private partnership to thrive and contribute to their regions.
Yes, this is America, and the terminal operators, trucking companies, freight forwarders, and other countless businesses in a port need to be well managed and self sufficient, like any other business in this country. But as public assets, ports also need the muscle of their local and/or state governments, as well as federal support, to help maintain and improve a port’s public assets, and to help market and promote those assets around the world.
Yes, in today’s challenging economic times, government should avoid wasteful spending that doesn’t pay off. But solid investment that is just that — solid, with a clear benefit — shouldn’t be avoided just to save dollars in the short term. Because if a governmental entity doesn’t help build a road, deepen a channel, or build a new cold storage warehouse now, the efforts of all those well-run private businesses inside our great ports will eventually be all for naught.
James T. McDermott Jr. is Executive Director of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority.