Port Infrastructure: Transportation for the Economy

November 1, 2010

by Julia Pulidindi 

Earlier this month, 42 construction projects and 33 planning projects were awarded the second round of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants. About 17 percent of the construction project awards went to port infrastructure, a huge increase from the first round of TIGER grants, where only about 8 percent went to port infrastructure.

This increase in funding emphasizes the importance of investment in port infrastructure, not only because of its impact on local economic development, but more broadly speaking, because of its impact on the nation's economic growth.

Commodities, finished products, automobiles and people - via the cruise industry - pass through the 300-plus ports in this country. The volume of products and people moving in and out of ports has a variety of direct and indirect impacts on the local, regional and national economies, such as job creation, revenues and a standing in the global market place.

According to 2007 statistics from the American Association of Port Authorities, ports created more than 13.3 million American jobs, some $3.95 trillion in international trade, and more than $23.2 billion in U.S. Customs duty revenues in that year. Maintaining these centers of trade is vital for economic stability.

One of the major issues surrounding ports is obtaining the funding needed for infrastructural improvements.  On the sea side, ports that do not have the capacity to manage the volume coming into their facilities face congestion and environmental issues, as cargo ships idle waiting to drop off their goods. This is further worsened when port channels are not deep enough to dock at the berths. Dredging - removing the sediment in waterways to create deeper channels - is important, as most ports are not located in naturally deep harbors to accommodate incoming cargo ships.

Moving goods off of container ships onto land-side connections is another issue, requiring clear and easy access to and from truck and rail facilities, and roads and rail lines. Idling goods at port facilities result in huge delays, increased congestion and higher transportation costs. And this will only be exacerbated as the volume of international trade through ports is expected to double 2001 volumes by the year 2020. Port facilities will need to have the infrastructure in place to manage these goods on both the sea- and land-side connections.

Aside from the land- and sea-side aspects, there are a host of other issues facing ports. In 2003, Riverside, Calif., reported that 68 million tons of rail freight passed through the county with less than 5 percent of that total either originating or ending locally. The impact of goods movement through the communities surrounding around ports presents a major challenge as it affects air quality, congestion and overall quality of life.

In addition, ports also face safety and security issues and funding, not only for maintenance and operations but also for increasing capacity to deal with future growth. The list is long, and the need is great to address port infrastructure issues as they relate to transportation and national growth. 

An informational session to discuss port infrastructure and other port issues will take place on Wednesday, December 1, at 5 p.m. at NLC's annual Congress of Cities & Exposition in Denver. This will be a time where members will be able to talk about how port activities impact their cities - directly or indirectly - and discuss how NLC can help.

"It's great to have our first NLC session that specifically focuses on ports, and the benefits and impacts that go along with it," Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn. "I look forward to sitting down and talking to other elected leaders from all over the nation, sharing what we are doing in Los Angeles, and learning what they are doing in their cities and ports."

Details: For more information on this session or the work NLC's Center for Research and Innovation is doing on transportation and infrastructure issues, please contact Julia Pulidindi at pulidindi@nlc.org.