Seaports and Waterways: The Forgotten Infrastructure Crisis
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To most Americans, the nation’s sea ports and inland waterways are out of sight and out of mind. Potholed roads, creaky transit systems, and power outages caused by an overtaxed electrical grid quickly grab our attention while the importance of our marine transportation system to economic growth, jobs, and competitiveness – and the system's steady deterioration – goes greatly underappreciated.
In 2010, more than 2.3 billion short tons of waterborne cargo were moved within the United States and to and from international destinations. This movement of cargo on ships contributes more than $649 billion annually to GDP and supports more than 13 million U.S. jobs.
However, a new report by the American Society of Civil Engineers concludes that without a $30 billion in investment in the nation’s ports and inland waterways over the next two decades, the United States will suffer export losses of $270 billion by 2020 and a $697 billion drop in gross domestic product. That loss of production equates to 738,000 jobs.
For many manufacturers and agricultural companies, moving goods and raw materials via rivers is the most cost-effective mode of transportation. But without increased inland waterway capacity, the transportation of goods and materials will shift to the rail and road, creating tremendous congestion and increasing costs for consumers on everything from corn muffins and chicken to electric bills.
Meanwhile, East Coast and Gulf Coast ports are unprepared to compete with West Coast, Caribbean, Canadian, and Mexican ports that are already capable, or soon will be, of handling larger vessels traveling through a Panama Canal whose capacity is expected to double upon the completion of its expansion project in 2014. These outdated U.S ports require increased channel depths, greater crane outreach capability, and more intermodal (truck and rail) capacity to compete.
These challenges are even more daunting when you consider that domestic freight volume is expected to double, and international freight volume entering U.S. ports to quadruple, over the next 30 years.
Congress must reverse the steady decline of our aging marine transportation infrastructure by passing a Water Resources Development Act that increases investment in and protects dedicated funds for the marine transportation system, improves coordination among the 18 different federal agencies and numerous congressional committees with jurisdiction over the marine transportation system, prioritizes projects and cuts red tape, and provides incentives for private sector investment.
For too long, the United States has failed to make infrastructure investment a priority. We need to once again make our marine transportation system an engine for economic growth and job creation.
Janet Kavinoky testified on the Water Resources Development Act before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public works on September 20, 2012. Read her testimony here.