Whether the expansion of the Panama Canal ultimately requires the deepening of several U.S. East Coast ports — and clearly that’s a story that will recur in coming years — it seems clear the project study and authorization process of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will bear closer scrutiny. It won’t be the first time, or the second, or the last, because the streamlining promised in 1986 compromise legislation simply never has materialized.
With the apparent need for approved projects thrust quickly upon the industry by the Panama Canal expansion, the decades-long corps process simply isn’t acceptable. Whether the issue is part of the Panama Canal expansion discussion, or of the latest Canadian diversion conversation, or the demand to free Harbor Maintenance Tax funds for their intended use, the corps’ approval process must be included as part of the discussion.
A second discussion in 2012 should focus on U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which generates revenue from its maritime responsibilities but seems to be caught in a manpower crunch of epic proportions. Its resources are being dispatched along the Southwest border and to higher-risk airports and seaports, leaving everyone else with chronic personnel shortages that will grow worse.
This issue is certainly easier to understand, in layman’s terms, than what happens in the vast, archaic bureaucracy of the Corps of Engineers — Customs has a budget, with which it pays for its agents, and the need for agents simply outweighs the agency’s ability to pay for enough agents.
It remains oddly interesting that in the commercial marketplace in which seaports compete, the roles of two federal agencies ultimately can overtake market forces and the best of business strategies.