Why the U.S. Needs Larger Seaports

In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama said, "To attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information—from high-speed rail to high-speed Internet." The first draft of the budget revealed by the White House leaves us wondering about a commitment to the infrastructure required to live up to the President's tallest fiscal order: doubling exports in the next five years.

U.S. seaports handle more than 2 billion tons of import and export cargo annually and account for 25 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. To meet President Obama's goal of doubling exports by 2016, our nation's deepwater ports must expand to accommodate the passage of vessels that require up to 50 feet in depth, which will be headed our way with the completion of the Panama Canal expansion in 2014.

Global trade hinges on the competitive advantage of even small differences in shipping costs. And shipping costs decrease the most when we can utilize the new, fuel-efficient deeper-draft vessels. Those vessels must be able to call at a network of efficient East and West Coast American ports in order for U.S. exporters and importers to lower costs, improve access to global markets, and reduce impact on the environment.

Simply stated: We need efficient ports in order to create jobs.

Benefit Analysis

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' recent analysis of the pending deepening of the Savannah Harbor channel, from the current 42 feet to as much as 48 feet, attests to the benefits of modernization. The Georgia port's trade is evenly balanced between exports and imports, including 12 percent of all U.S. containerized exports. The current lack of space forces nearly 80 percent of the ships to take on lighter-than-capacity loads. Thirty percent of the ships sit idle waiting for high tide. And the most modern fuel- and cost-efficient ships cannot call at the port at all because they need the 48-foot channel that will be the result of this Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.

Navigation-channel modernization projects meet every test for federal investment. They are congressionally authorized after extensive merit-based analyses, matched with local-user funds, federally maintained, and subject to public review and a myriad of environmental and benefit-cost requirements established by Congress and the executive branch. The Corps' 10-year, $35 million analysis conservatively estimates that every dollar spent to deepen the Savannah channel will generate almost $5 for the U.S. (in addition to the current $61.7 billion in sales, $15.5 billion in employment income, and $6.1 billion in federal and state taxes already generated by Georgia ports annually).

Even in strong economic times, we neglected modernization of our federal navigation channels while other countries invested vast sums in ports and in deepening their channels to 48 feet or more to accommodate the new generation of larger cargo vessels that will soon dominate international trade. Now both American consumers and the job-creating capacity of our nation's businesses are paying the price.

Ports like Savannah and others waiting in line for federal funding can use their deeper channels to open the door to a surge in new commerce, sources of profits and tax revenue, and jobs for generations of Americans for decades to come. Our ports may lie out of sight to most Americans, but they need to stay fixed on the agenda of the President and the new Congress.

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