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Creaking port infrastructure threatens US economy

Posted to Far East Maritime (by on September 14, 2011

For something so important to the US economy, you would have thought the government would have kept a closer eye on its port development.

When a college kid hears a knocking noise coming from his engine, he usually has two options: Crank up the music, or let the problem develop. Either option will save him money. In the short term, at least.

Of course, eventually his engine will break down and if he is lucky, it will be a fixable problem from a cost-benefit point of view.

This is where the US finds itself with port infrastructure. Like a college kid, the government turned up the music and let the problems with its creaking infrastructure develop.

And now, just when federal funding for the ports is so urgently needed, the government is in desperate cost cutting mode, slashing and burning every budget in sight.

At the Association of American Port Authorities annual congress in Seattle, port infrastructure was the hot topic on every executive director's mind. Some port authorities, such as the Georgia Ports Authority and the Port of Los Angeles, are in good shape, but many are not.

The timing of the debt crisis could not have been worse. The US Army Corps of Engineers says the top 59 ports in the US will only have 50 percent of their channel depth requirements in the coming year because of funding constraints.

Of the US$832 million set aside for coastal navigation, only $706 million is going towards maintaining the channel depths of more than 929 coastal ports. Of the 446 ports that requested maintenance funding, only 154 will get it.

Talk about being behind the curve. John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highways and Transportation Officials in Washington, has little good to say about Congress.

“The president has stated that he wants the US to stage an export-led economic recovery. What will it take to make that possible and to sustain that? Can this be done when we have a mindless drive to cut government spending at every level, regardless of the effect?”

After letting the problem develop through either ignoring calls from the industry or battling through decade-long studies and environmental impact assessments, the US is in … well, we could say in deep water, but that is the problem. The US is in water that is too shallow.

Container lines had better start adding wheels to the bottom of their bigger vessels because they will soon have to drive them into US ports. And then that college kid who has been behind the port development programme for so long may as well take the wheel.