July 2009 | Commentary | EcoDev

Healthy Seaports: An 'Open for Business' Sign

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Nearly everything we buy or consume—from the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, to the coffee we start our day with—comes to us on a ship, through one of our nation's seaports. In turn, nearly everything the United States sells in the global marketplace makes its way there via our seaports. This includes valuable domestic commodities such as machinery, steel, and building materials.

Today, as we confront a host of national challenges—chief among them, recovery from the current economic crisis—our seaports play a clear and critical role.

Deep-draft seaports—both coastal and fresh water—are dynamic, vibrant centers of trade and commerce, but what's most important to understand is that they depend on partnerships, both public and private.

A successful seaport is supported by clear and navigable federal waterways—dredged deep and wide enough for ships to pass through, and kept clean for the plants, fish, and wildlife around it to thrive. A successful seaport is also supported by a federal government that properly funds the roads, highways, waterways, and rail systems that lead to it. Finally, a successful seaport is one whose state and local officials take an active role in the maintenance and upkeep of those systems.

SEAPORTS DELIVER PROSPERITY

In the United States, seaports invest more than $2.5 billion every year to maintain and improve their infrastructure. In recent years, however, this commitment has not been adequately matched by the federal government. Many land and water connections are insufficient and outdated, affecting the ports' ability to move cargo into and out of the country. In turn, this hurts U.S. businesses, our workforce, and our national economy.

U.S. seaports need increased federal infrastructure investments that will correct this imbalance while delivering much-needed economic prosperity to the country. Recent estimates that the volume of international trade through our ports will double by 2020 only underscore this need.

Across the United States and around the globe, seaports are so much more than just safe havens in rough waters. They're centers of commerce and trade, busy and dynamic transportation hubs that are constantly adapting to meet ever-changing global trade demands.

Seaports are where imported goods make their first landfall, and where the goods we export to the world first leave our shores.

Seaports help build and grow international trade, and strengthen local and national economies. They provide high-paying jobs and help increase our standard of living. And they connect us with the rest of the world—at a time when our mutual dependence on trade is becoming even more important. This is why keeping ports modern, navigable, safe, and properly supported must be a core priority for the nation.

CONSIDER THE NUMBERS

For every task performed on port sites, every piece of cargo they process, and every new capability ports can offer their customers, there is an associated employment and economic impact.

For example, in 2007, U.S. seaports were responsible for nearly $3.2 trillion in economic activity. They generated more than $212 billion in tax revenue, moved more than 99 percent of the country's overseas cargo, handled more than two billion tons of cargo, and supported more than 13 million American jobs, accounting for $649 billion in personal income.

As broad and as big as their impact is, ports also serve as local economic engines. Consider the location of the largest U.S. metropolitan centers—such as New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Seattle, Miami—and you'll notice a high percentage have ports that handle ocean-going vessels. Centers of international trade like these are magnets for business and economic development. Consequently, now, when an economic shot in the arm is needed more than ever, it is critical to invest in ports, their infrastructure, and their operations.

With multi-million-dollar projects underway at seaports around the country, port authorities have done a lot to stimulate the economy in recent months—and the transportation infrastructure investments they are making are working. But there's still more to do.

THE FEDERAL ROLE

We must ensure that there's adequate, safe, and congestion-free access to ports from land, which is a federal responsibility. Another federal responsibility is to ensure modern, navigable waterside access—with channels that are deep and wide enough to handle today's modern vessels—and marine highways to provide transportation options for moving cargo between ports.

These priorities should be included in a long-term, national transportation plan that addresses freight mobility, congestion, and productivity. Without such a plan—and the necessary investment to support it—America will be less competitive, consumers will pay higher prices for the things they need, and national, state, and local economies will suffer.

The federal government should play the appropriate role by helping enhance the movement of goods to help America regain its competitive footing.

Addressing goods movement challenges and alleviating freight congestion must be a top priority of the upcoming surface transportation legislation in order to help ensure U.S. farmers, manufacturers, and other businesses remain competitive in the global marketplace. Seaports can play a critical role in our national economic recovery; however, connecting infrastructure to ports requires higher levels of federal investment to create jobs, alleviate congestion, and deliver prosperity.

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