Ports in Security Storm

Ports in Security Storm

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

Only two pages in the hefty September 11 Commission Report were devoted to cargo security issues. But that has rekindled congressional interest in securing U.S. ports and maritime officials hope it also revives interest in paying for improvements in container supply chains.

"The 9/11 report does bolster our case that ports need more funding, but as of right now we haven''t seen any action on that," said Maureen Ellis, director of communications for the American Association of Port Authorities.

"We''re disappointed that we haven''t gotten more money," said Jay Grant, director of the Port Security Council, a group of maritime organizations including the AAPA, nonprofit associations, government entities and private industry.

"In order to truly get into technology-based security systems, it''s going to cost more money," Grant said. "The ports and the private sector are spending lots of money. There''s no doubt we need more federal dollars."

So far, the government has provided about $566 million for port security. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates it would take $7.3 billion over 10 years for ports to meet security requirements.

There are dozens of legislative proposals in Congress to enhance port security, offered by Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. The most likely vehicle for action is a bill by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., that the Senate Commerce committee approved April 8. Like other proposals, the Hollings bill would build on the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002.

"With the report out, there is a stronger likelihood of this legislation moving," said Hollings spokeswoman Ilene Zeldin.

The bill would make several changes to the port security regime. Its requirement for development of a national intermodal cargo security plan within 180 days of enactment would meld neatly with the recommendations of the September 11 Commission, which faulted the Transportation Security Administration for failing to develop a cohesive security plan connecting all modes of transportation.

"Opportunities to do harm are as great, or greater, in maritime or surface transportation. Initiatives to secure shipping containers have just begun," the report said.

The report recommends the government "identify and evaluate the transportation assets that need to be protected, set risk-based priorities for defending them, select the most practical and cost-effective ways of doing so, and then develop a plan, budget, and funding to implement the effort. The plan should assign roles and missions to the relevant authorities (federal, state, regional and local) and to private stakeholders."

The Hollings bill originally would have raised $400 million a year for five years, enough to cover the bill''s cost, through a security fee. But the AAPA balked at the imposition of a fee on its customers. The provision was stripped from the bill, helping push the legislation along. That support, coupled with the commission report, "means we do have an increased chance in addressing port security," Grant said.

But that still leaves the question of how much the private sector should pay to help secure ports, many of which are publicly owned but have terminals or other facilities leased to private operators.

House Democrats want to act on their own port security proposal or work on a comprehensive homeland security bill that includes port security, said Moira Whelan, spokeswoman for Democrats on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. The Democrats'' port proposal, the Secure COAST Act, would boost port security grants to $537 million in fiscal 2005.

Whelan said the commission report bolsters the Democrats'' port security plans. "We would have hoped it would increase attention on what we''ve already put forward."

In addition to proposals on infrastructure and risk-assessment, the Democrats'' bill also includes provisions for cargo security, an issue that also has gained increased attention lately. Cargo security was mentioned at least twice during speeches at the Democratic convention.

Supply chain security also has become part of the rhetoric in some congressional campaigns, notably the one to choose Hollings'' successor. The Democratic candidate in that race, Inez Tenenbaum, has made port and cargo security key campaign issues in her campaign against Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. Tenenbaum wants to double container inspections overseas from the current 4 percent to at least 8 percent within two years, and increase port security grants.

Advocates of increased funding for maritime cargo security say anything that focuses more attention on the issue helps their cause. "If you talk to any politician, from either party, they''ll say port security is a priority," Grant said. "Moving from setting priorities to acting on them is another issue."