As the American Association of Port Authorities celebrates its centennial year in 2012, we look forward to working with Congress and the administration to advance understanding and appreciation of the seaport industry’s value to the nation. With increased attention during the past year by national media and federal government interests in the seaport industry’s agenda, we’re optimistic a number of needed changes can occur in 2012.
Achieving National Goals
As we work to recover from the economic downturn, we must ask ourselves: Is America ready? Ship sizes continue to get larger, requiring ongoing modernization of ports and federal navigation channels, even for those that don’t require 50 feet of depth.
The U.S. is working to double its exports by 2014, and we have new trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia; other trade agreements are in the works. In addition to these near-term challenges, the U.S. population is forecast to grow by 100 million — a 30 percent increase — by the middle of the 21st century. Population growth brings greater use of, and reliance on, freight transportation infrastructure.
U.S. ports have made significant investments to address the challenges, but federal funding and policy reform have been slow to follow. The federal government has a unique constitutional responsibility to maintain and improve the infrastructure that enables the flow of commerce, and much of the infrastructure in and around seaports has been neglected for too long.
Many of our land and water connections are insufficient, outdated and need better maintenance, affecting the ability of ports to move cargo efficiently into and out of the country. This hurts U.S. business, American workers and our national economy.
Port-related infrastructure projects take decades to plan and build, and delaying them increases congestion and cargo inefficiency. Federal investment in seaports is an essential and effective utilization of limited resources, paying dividends through increased trade and commerce, long-term job creation, secure borders, military support, environmental stewardship, and more than $200 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue.
The president’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness made an urgent plea in 2011 for improvements in the nation’s transportation infrastructure, including landside and waterside access to seaports.
These issues are now being discussed at the highest levels of government, but is there enough momentum for the necessary changes to occur?
Funding for current and future deep-draft dredging projects must be a priority, even in this tight budget climate. We support legislation to ensure full use of the Harbor Maintenance Tax. Since 1986, users of harbors have paid the HMT, ostensibly to fund the federal contribution of maintaining channels.
The current practice of providing only half of annual HMT revenue collected for harbor maintenance has a detrimental impact on channel dimensions and the ability of ports to bring in larger, more economical and environmentally friendly vessels.
Modernization and deepening of federal channels is another critical issue being discussed at the federal level, for the U.S. to be prepared for 21st century trade realities. Funding has been reduced for the Corps of Engineers’ new construction program, despite the challenges that will come with the current and future world fleet, our new trade agreements and America’s international competitiveness.
Surface Transportation Reauthorization Legislation
Freight mobility should be a key component of any reauthorization bill, and we hope Congress will pass surface transportation reauthorization legislation in 2012 that focuses on freight at the federal, state and metropolitan planning organization levels, and that encompasses port, road, rail and water-side infrastructure needs.
A National Freight Policy should incentivize investments in intermodal freight connectors to ports, projects and corridors of national and regional significance, marine highways and rail expansion. Congress should include a maritime title in the reauthorization bill to ensure full use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and the Department of Transportation should create a multimodal freight office within the Office of the Secretary — action that could be taken immediately, even before legislation is enacted.
Another aspect of surface transportation reauthorization where headway is being made is ensuring seaports are awarded their fair share of TIGER discretionary grants. With port infrastructure investments one of the four eligible areas (along with highways/bridges, transit and freight/passenger rail) for the TIGER grant program, and because other modes have received significant federal funds through other programs, seaports should receive at least 25 percent of the total amount awarded.
Ballast Water Discharge
To ensure port competitiveness in attracting international commerce, Congress needs to create a single, new federal authority for regulating ballast water discharges under the Clean Water Act that would pre-empt differing state standards. Ballast water discharges currently are subject to regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard and state resource agencies; this can result in different and conflicting requirements.
Congress appears to be listening. The House in November passed a bill that would create a national standard for cleaning ballast water in ships. We’re hopeful this or similar legislation will become law in 2012.
Advancing Port Security
Safe and secure seaport facilities are fundamental to protecting national borders, moving goods efficiently and keeping seaports open for business. Security continues to be a top priority for ports, which collaborate with government officials and private-sector security experts to maintain and enhance seaport security.
Congress is considering legislation to reauthorize port security policies and grant funding enacted in the 2006 SAFE Port Act. For ports, priorities include waiving the 25 percent cost-share requirement for ports in the Port Security Grant Program, returning the annual grant authorization level to $400 million, ensuring PSGP awards aren’t lumped with other state and local grant programs, and allowing grant funds to be used to hire new security personnel for the term of the grant and to backfill salaries for approved training programs.
We’re making headway with advancing port security priorities, but is it enough?
Advocating for Change
While favorable funding and policy changes that would propel goods movement to, from and through America’s seaports appear to be on the horizon, there are conflicting national priorities that could intervene. The arguments for increased land- and water-side freight mobility, more port security funding, national ballast water standards and Harbor Maintenance Tax policy reform are strong and are being heard, but they need the collective and repeated voices of the entire industry to generate critical mass and reach their desired goals.
Now is the time to move forward to develop and implement policy and programs that will sustain and improve America’s critical gateways for global trade. By raising the priority of seaports, their connecting infrastructure and their security and environmental resource needs, America can achieve modern, navigable ports that are safe, secure and environmentally sustainable, while creating jobs for today and the future.
Kurt Nagle is president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities in Washington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.