Ports Shouldn’t Be Invisible
Written by: Perry A. Trunick
Ports are economic engines and environmental stewards, but their role is largely misunderstood.
Users of the transportation system need to help dispel some of the myths about freight
transportation and the developing infrastructure crisis that will affect freight flows, says
Jean Goodwin, executive vice president and general counsel for the American
Association of Port Authorities (AAPA www.aapa-ports.org). Speaking at the 52nd
annual summer conference of SMC3, she emphasized that there are 180 deep-draft
ports in the United States covering both "blue states" and "red states." The issues facing
ports, she said, are non-partisan.
Ports are dynamic transportation hubs, said Goodwin, and the US ports are trying to
keep up with the demands of global trade while attempting to be a catalyst for family-
wage jobs. Still, she said, the AAPA and other supporters may only get 30 to 60 seconds
to make their case with key government officials. You need to know what you are going
to say when you see that presidential candidate stumping in your backyard and you get
your 30 to 60 seconds, she told the transportation executives in the audience.
Mythbuster number one. "When you’ve seen one port, you’ve seen one port," said
Goodwin. No two ports are alike. The physical layout, types of equipment they use, the
markets they serve, and the way they’re financed and governed make it difficult to
categorize ports under a general description. The common thread connecting them is
the need to develop waterfront property for shipping and cargo handling purposes. All of
the AAPA members are public agencies with elected or appointed boards and
professional port staffs. They can be in state, county, city or special districts and may
even be in a bi-state district, so economic development is often focused on issues other
than maritime development. (Goodwin offers a favorite example in the Rock and Roll
Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio which was built on port property and with
port authority support.)
On the landside, AAPA works to support ports dealing with a very decentralized
government structure. Between 1946 and 2003, the US port authorities invested $27
billion in capital projects to enhance facilities. "We are spending over $2 billion a year to
continue to do that," said Goodwin.
Mythbuster number two. On the waterside, the federal government controls development
of federal navigation channels. Maintenance dredging to keep access channels at
authorized depths is funded by a harbor maintenance fee which is paid into the Harbor
Maintenance Trust Fund. New projects are funded by a combination of federal and local
sponsorship, and the local portion can be as much as 60% of the project.
Dredging is not a top-of-mind issue when projects are planned and with much of the
money sitting in the trust fund, cargo is paying into the fund in the form of user fees but
unlike the highway trust fund, there is no direct connection between the amount
appropriated for projects and the amount collected. Users have essentially prepaid for
services they’re not getting, comments Goodwin.
When you talk about dredging to your congressmen, their eyes glaze over, she
continues. There’s a perception that all ports want infrastructure that only a few are
going to be able to use, and that’s not the case. While maintenance dredging is falling
behind, ships are getting bigger. Goodwin offered a localized example for the attendees.
Not far from the meeting site in Myrtle Beach, SC is the port of Georgetown, SC. That
port isn’t getting the money it needs for maintenance dredging, said Goodwin, and
because of that, the cost of construction in Myrtle Beach is higher. Goods that could be
shipped to a port 10 miles from a construction site must land farther away and be
brought in by truck. That’s good for the motor carriers present, she quipped, but moving
those goods an additional 120 miles by truck is an unnecessary expense that gets
added to the construction costs.
Mythbuster number three. Addressing the issue of short sea shipping, Goodwin
suggested the perspective is skewed. People talk about getting trucks off the road, she
said. The real issue is moving the point where a truck would pick up the cargo out of a
congested region and into a less congested area where it can move more efficiently.
AAPA supports short sea shipping, said Goodwin, but the mode faces some challenges.
One is the harbor maintenance tax. International cargo that arrives at one US port and is
transshipped to another US port pays twice. Another issue is the chicken-and-egg
problem, she continued. Often, the infrastructure and the services aren’t there at the
port, and no one wants to invest in building it unless they know the business is going to
be available. Someone has to stick their neck out, said Goodwin, possibly with some
Mythbuster number four. Cargo volume growth projections are staggering, Goodwin
pointed out. There are about 1,000 ocean-going vessels calling on US ports, accounting
for a total of 24,000 vessel calls per year. From 1998 to 2005, the number of
international containers rose from 15 million to 26 million. If that trend continues, the US
ports don’t have the infrastructure to meet the growth. And, she noted, it’s not just a
West Coast problem. With the expansion of the Panama Canal, which is slated to be
complete in less than seven years, US East Coast and Gulf Coast ports will see
increased volumes as well.
Bigger ships don’t just need deeper channels to operate, they also need bigger cranes,
longer docks, and additional shoreside equipment to handle the cargo. Access will be
critical to ports, including landside access. Here, the ports are working with railroads,
and they are seeing progress. But railroads are private entities. Highway connections
and capacity will be a major factor, and that won’t be as easy to resolve. (See
Congestion Takes a Holiday, pg. 23) Some issues can be as simple as installing a left-
turn signal to improve traffic flow, says Goodwin, but it’s difficult to get the issues
resolved when they are subject to local funding.
Here, Goodwin called on attendees to help in the local communities where they operate.
It’s important to cultivate an understanding of the importance of freight and goods
movement at the local level, she pointed out.
Adding to the challenges of funding dredging and harbor maintenance, keeping the
economic development focus on cargo (when developers are eyeing waterfront
property), funding and building infrastructure to support efficient freight flows, the ports
face increasing pressure on security.
Mythbuster number five. You want to build public awareness of security needs, said
Goodwin, because you want public support for funding. But you don’t want to create an
atmosphere of fear. The general public understands airport security because they fly,
said Goodwin, but they don’t understand port security and they only see ports when
something goes wrong—like the West Coast port lockout in 2002, hurricane Katrina, or
the DP World purchase of P&O Ports.
There is confusion over some of the basic terminology, said Goodwin, and this can
translate into some very negative attitudes and rules. Chief among the concerns is a call
for 100% inspection of cargo containers. Goodwin offered brief explanations of three
terms that are often misunderstood.
Screening involves looking at data on where a shipment is coming from, who’s shipping
it, how it’s being handled, etc. That’s typically done well in advance of the goods moving.
Scanning is actually passing the container through a device to check the contents and
detect threats like radiation. More scanning is being done at foreign ports before the
cargo is loaded aboard a ship bound for the US. The technology is capable, says
Goodwin, but not everyone has it.
With scanning, there is also an issue of manpower. As with an airport baggage scan,
there is very little value in collecting images if no one is looking at them and interpreting
them, she pointed out. Scanning cargo containers also means having skilled people
available to interpret those images. On the inbound side in the US, some of the smaller
ports have encountered issues with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) not having
sufficient personnel to staff the operation beyond eight hours.
Inspection, Goodwin pointed out, means physically opening the container and looking at
the cargo. You can’t physically open every container coming to America, she cautioned.
So, language is important, and Goodwin and audience members agreed that the general
public is less aware of the distinctions. The situation has been further exacerbated by
the general media getting it wrong, she added.
The transportation industry has some work to do in understanding the infrastructure
challenge, funding, and political issues surrounding port operations, maintenance, and
expansion. But the industry can also help mold some public perceptions on the impact
delays and inefficiency will have as well as the positive role freight plays in local,
regional, and the national economies. And, if ports are to avoid becoming major
bottlenecks, both the industry and the general public need a basic understanding of what
is reasonable on security.