Opinion

Policymakers Must Not Overlook Our Nation’s Ports

For months now, COVID-19 has profoundly altered our ways of life. While many aspects of our daily routines have come to a halt to slow the virus’s spread, our infrastructure systems — water pipes, electric grid, freight networks and more — are still running around the clock, supporting our daily existence while ensuring public health and safety.

Take United States ports, for example. During the pandemic, they’ve ensured our shelves remain stocked and commerce continues to flow. Due to the supply chain in which ports are a central link, people have been able to safely navigate through their daily activities with the knowledge that critical medical supplies, consumer goods, personal protection equipment, energy commodities and raw materials used in U.S. exports continue to move. 

Last year, the American Association of Port Authorities reported that cargo activities at U.S. ports were responsible for $5.4 trillion in annual economic activity, supporting 30.8 million jobs and providing $378.1 billion in tax revenue to federal, state and local governments.  

However, the economic downturn we’re facing this year has caused significant economic damage to our ports, with an estimated decline of 20 percent to 30 percent of their total annual receipts. On top of that – the cruise industry at U.S. ports has come to a standstill, which in 2018 contributed an additional $53 billion to the U.S. economy.

As a result, direct job losses at America’s seaports this year are estimated to reach up to 130,000. That’s 20 percent of the U.S. maritime workforce at full employment.  

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the nation’s ports earned a  mediocre C+.  The Report Card cites impacts of natural disasters and other crises at ports that result in billions of dollars in damage a year and the loss of long-term economic activity, and that was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Consequently, some ports are postponing plans for and investment in capital improvement projects, putting the readiness, capacity and capability of our nation’s trade infrastructure at risk.  

An April 2020 report prepared for the U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System shows that increasing port-related transportation infrastructure investments above a “business-as-usual” scenario will help the nation recover from a long pattern of infrastructure underspending. It notes that greater infrastructure investments will enable higher growth, improve trade performance, expand employment opportunities and enhance value of household incomes. 

Fortunately, Congress has recently begun to take action. On July 7, the House Appropriations Committee released its draft FY2021 Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (THUD) funding bill. That legislation includes an additional $1 billion next year for the USDOT Maritime Administration’s Port Infrastructure Development Program to invest in our nation’s ports and spur the national economy. 

To provide near-term pandemic relief for the marine sector, Reps. Peter DeFazio and Sean Patrick Maloney introduced the Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief Act in the U.S. House on July 9. Recognizing that ports are facing significant cargo and passenger declines this year, in addition to added costs for cleaning, sanitation, PPE and related supplies, this authorization bill seeks to establish a program to provide dedicated maritime assistance and emergency relief grant funds for emergency response, cleaning and sanitization, staffing, workforce retention and paid leave, procurement and use of personal protective equipment, debt service payments, and for infrastructure repair.

We strongly support these two bills and are urging Congress to provide a modest $1.5 billion in direct grants to help ports cover operations, equipment, and infrastructure costs, and debt service expenses. 

Every day, America’s seaports are delivering critical goods and materials to the front line of the COVID-19 battlegrounds. Essential port workers, who aren’t able to work remotely, are also ensuring consumer goods get to the doorsteps of countless millions of Americans who are safely working from home.

Policymakers must not overlook our nation’s ports in their time of need. The relief we’re seeking isn’t about replacing lost carrier, cargo and cruise passenger revenue. It’s about ensuring that ports are able to keep pace with the accelerating costs of protecting their workers while keeping their workforce employed. It’s about ensuring bond and other debt instrument payments aren’t missed. Ultimately, it’s about maintaining a state of readiness so ports can significantly aid in the nation’s eventual economic recovery.

K.N. Gunalan “Guna,” Ph.D., P.E., is the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Christopher J. Connor is the president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities.

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