Ours is a nation with a strong maritime heritage, and it is our ports and waterways that have linked communities with one another and to the world.
These essential water-borne connections are as essential today as they were at our founding. According to the Congressional Research Service, more U.S. merchandise by tonnage is carried by oceangoing vessels than by airplanes, trucks, freight trains and pipelines combined. Nearly one-third of our gross domestic product enters or leaves through a seaport. Approximately 30 million domestic jobs are related to international trade, as well as almost $200 billion in federal, state and local tax annual revenue that is generated by our ports.
Yet, despite the obvious economic importance of our ports and inland waterways, the signs of their disrepair and, in some cases, obsolescence are apparent. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported that our nation’s 59 busiest commercial shipping channels function at their authorized widths and depths only 30 percent of the time, with midsize and smaller U.S. ports facing even greater challenges. Fully 90 percent of locks and dams on the inland waterway system experienced some type of unscheduled delay in 2009.
Simultaneously, domestic and international trends in shipping goods and services compel greater efficiencies and infrastructure improvements to meet modern demands. For American ports, particularly on the East Coast, a key challenge will be their ability to handle the large Post-Panamax cargo ships that will start service with the completed expansions of the Panama and Suez canals. As our nation’s other transportation modes become increasingly congested, shippers are looking to the inland waterways to efficiently move goods to domestic and international consumers.
Addressing these challenges requires greater attention from all levels of government and the private sector. Recent passage of water resources development legislation in the House (HR 3080) and Senate (S 601) demonstrates that Congress is finally taking steps to respond.
Through the legislation, Congress would authorize the key missions of the corps, including developing, maintaining and supporting the nation’s economically vital waterway infrastructure. As Congress completes conference negotiations, it has a historic opportunity to begin addressing the challenges facing our coastal ports and inland harbors.
For example, the bills should call for increasing expenditures from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund over time to a point where annual collections from shippers (which recently have averaged around $1.6 billion annually) equal expenditures for maintaining safe and efficient navigation corridors. The legislation should also recognize the importance of adequate maintenance of all of our eligible ports and harbors, as even small and mid-size harbors provide vital national, regional and local benefits.
Most important, the bills must recognize that simply increasing expenditures for operations and maintenance from the HMTF is not a legitimate solution if these expenditures result from funding transfers from other Corps’ mission areas, especially its construction budget. If our nation’s ports are to remain competitive in the Post-Panamax world, Congress needs to fund both deepening construction projects as well as maintenance dredging of our existing ports and harbors.
It is essential that the measures should begin to address the growing backlog of navigation lock and dam upgrades and replacements necessary for an efficient and reliable inland transportation network. Congress can take reasonable interim steps to improve the efficiency of ongoing and pending inland waterway projects, as well as lay the groundwork for later efforts to address ongoing funding shortfalls.
Enactment of a new law will be a monumental achievement for the 113th Congress, and one that has resulted from a serious, bipartisan desire to address long-neglected water infrastructure needs facing the nation. It will represent a substantial first step forward, one that must be followed by Congress and the administration carrying through the policy and financial commitments made in the final bill.
Our water transportation system is only as effective as the quality of its infrastructure, and restoring the strength and reliability of a 21st century water infrastructure network will require substantial investment by all levels of government and the private sector. That is the path that will be laid down by enactment of a new law — but one that will need constant attention from all stakeholders to come to fruition.
Rep. Timothy H. Bishop, D-N.Y., serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.