MarAd and AAPA team up to improve port infrastructure
Critics say this could be a well-meaning effort too late in coming and using the wrong approach
The American Association of Port Authorities is teaming up with MarAd to set up a “toolkit” to help ports find the best ways to bring investment into infrastructure, from public and/or private coffers.
All well and good. The trouble is that many people in the industry reckon that the tide has passed by as matters have reached crisis point and there is no time for a long, leisurely look, as this promises to be.
The approach is also questionable. Volunteer experts are being called on for technical assistance, which means those with time on their hands, usually retirees. But it also gives corporate interests the chance to push their own business interests to skew the findings to benefit them. (The AAPA is hiring a contractor to conduct “focus groups”. These are usually set up to find out what the target audience wants, which in this case is easy – better and more modern facilities to compete on the world market.)
Very general aims are listed. Among these are “guidance on writing grant applications, methods to analyze a project’s economic benefits, and examples of best practices…” What should also be included in the list is the very awkward subject of foreign investment and ownership of US terminals and ports.
For far too long, discussion of the benefits and disadvantages of this has been dodged. And it is no coincidence that the US has grown increasingly uncompetitive (except in bulk liquid terminals such as oil) as foreign investment has stayed away.
A recent development has made foreigners even more wary. ICTSI has run into problems at Portland because of dockworker resistance. Nonetheless, Gulftainer is looking at a joint venture on the East Coast – which is possibly the solution for future outside investment. And that investment is needed, because the international operators have deeper pockets and better experience than those in the US.
Yet it is unlikely that such a business stratagem will be seriously considered in the “toolkit”. This is because of MarAd’s involvement. A government agency avoids controversy at all costs and MarAd is a prime exponent of this policy. Unless the AAPA has extraordinarily strong leverage with MarAd, it is going to find that imaginative and, most of all, innovative ideas will be stifled.
A couple of observers have suggested that the “toolkit” should be stocked with one aim only in mind – to attract more private investment and leave out any thought of latching onto public money.