Setting Port Priorities

In the 17 years since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started its reconnaissance study of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, other countries have accomplished a tad more in terms of marine infrastructure projects.

Consider this: China built the largest marine terminal in the world at Yangshan and a 22-mile bridge connecting it to Shanghai; and the Panama Canal Authority planned, received public approval for, financed and will have built the largest global infrastructure project in our lifetime. The Army Corps has yet to dredge a single cubic meter of the Savannah River bottom under SHEP, which won’t be completed until the end of 2016, making 20 years from start to finish.

Those are tough facts to digest at a time when the Obama administration is trying to double U.S. exports and boost the nation’s international trade competitiveness. That’s why U.S. ports are working under the rubric of the American Association of Port Authorities to make sure the nation is moving toward creating a mechanism at the federal level to identify, prioritize and fund port deepening and rail and road infrastructure projects that can enhance competiveness regardless of competing local politics.

Given that international trade accounts for more than 25 percent of U.S. GDP, provides 13 million jobs and earns more than $200 million in tax revenue, that should be a no-brainer, and yet many port projects remain snarled by red tape and limited funding.

“Cutting through that red tape is a key on both the land side and the water side,” AAPA President and CEO Kurt Nagle said. “Trade is growing around the world, and ships are getting bigger, so if we want to remain significant players, we need to be able to handle those ships coming into our ports and that higher volume of containers moving in and out of our ports and on the last mile of land side road and rail infrastructure. That needs to be recognized and prioritized.”

While adequate port funding remains elusive, Nagle thinks port project prioritization is making progress. The AAPA and others in the freight community got provisions included in last year’s transportation bill, known as MAP-21, provisions that would streamline port and landside projects and provide penalties to federal agencies if certain deadlines aren’t met. “It will help move those projects forward more quickly and reduce the port and landside project backlog,” Nagle said.

Under MAP-21, the Department of Transportation also established a National Freight Advisory Council and an Advisory Committee on Supply Chain Competitiveness, both of which will seek input from shippers and transportation advisers to shape the nation’s transportation priorities. The council includes four port representatives, one from each coast and the Great Lakes, who will make sure ports get attention.

“This is a first step toward establishing a National Freight Strategic Plan after 200 years without one and making sure we have the funding for it,” Nagle said.

Contact Peter T. Leach at and follow him at

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