Commentary: TIGER Grants Fall Short for Ports

The fourth round of TIGER grants announced last week is another example of economic stimulus that is too little, too late and a missed opportunity to leverage our port assets.

Only eight of the grants, worth about $79 million, or about 16 percent of the $485.3 million in available funds, go directly to port-related infrastructure. That’s a slight improvement over the third round of TIGER grants, when only 15 percent went to port projects, but it still falls far short of meeting U.S. port and waterway needs at a time when shallow harbors, inadequate inland connectors and aging river locks and dams are undermining the country’s competitive position in exports.

If proof were needed, the Army Corps of Engineers called for a new approach to the public and private financing of strategically critical maritime infrastructure projects in Gulf and Southeast ports on the same day the Department of Transportation announced the new TIGER grants. In a report to Congress, the corps said the U.S. must find a way to fund the deepening of Southeast and Gulf ports to remain competitive in global trade at a time when deficits threaten our ability to fund projects.

I may be preaching to the choir, but what’s distressing is that the Obama administration can’t see the payoff in terms of jobs and economic activity that port investment brings. A total of 258,000 jobs in Texas, for example, are related to cargo moving through the Port of Houston, which generate $4.5 billion in state and local taxes, according to a recent study by Martin Associates.

“The administration continues to ignore ports as a major source of job growth,” said John Martin, the port consultant’s principal. “If we don’t invest in our ports and inland waterways, how can we ready ourselves for export activity?”

The administration’s National Export Initiative sets a goal of doubling exports in the five years to 2014, but most U.S. exports of coal and wheat move by barge down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, where some locks and dams are more than 70 years old and in danger of failure. On top of that, most of our exports are much heavier than our imports and require deeper harbors to handle the large post-Panamax and bulk ships that carry them to export markets.

If Washington can fund more harbor deepening in the Southeast, it will generate enormous dividends in terms of job growth by luring back to U.S. ports the transshipment activities that have migrated to Caribbean hubs over the last decade. Every additional weekly service by an 8,500-TEU container ship with some transshipment cargo equates to 7,900 direct and indirect jobs. It also would create another 11,500 jobs in logistics support in distribution centers, packaging and trucking.

“So we stand to lose 18,000 to 19,000 jobs for every weekly transshipment service that we can’t bring back to our ports because we don’t have adequate infrastructure,” Martin said.

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

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