Restoring Our Ports, Restoring U.S. Competitiveness | Commentary

Posted April 30, 2014 at 4:00am

Our nation’s ports and waterways are vital to American competitiveness. They employ more than 13 million people and transport millions of products to markets across the globe.

But, America’s water infrastructure is rapidly aging and its upkeep is paramount to maintaining our trade dominance. While our ports deteriorate, our competitors are investing billions to strengthen and grow their countries’ water infrastructure.

China has invested $10 billion dollars to build a port in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, ramping up trade between China and Eastern Africa. The port is expected to handle 20 million containers a year, transforming it in to a hub for shipments in the Indian Ocean.

Panama has poured billions of dollars into its Panamax project to upgrade the Panama Canal’s lock system. Once completed, the deepened canal will be able to accommodate the largest container ships in the world. Large Post-Panamax container ships currently make up 16 percent of the world’s container fleet, and this number is projected to increase to 62 percent by 2030.

Post-Panamax ships require a port depth of 50 feet. Currently, only seven U.S. ports can accommodate ships of this size. Of these seven U.S. ports, none are located on the South-Atlantic Gulf.

Government regulations and the misuse of water infrastructure funds have stalled port projects in the South-Atlantic Gulf and across our country for decades. Consequently, our ports have begun to silt in.

In 1986, Congress levied a Harbor Maintenance Tax on all imports brought on to our shores. Each year, our shippers pay more than $1.7 billion dollars in import taxes. This money is pooled together into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which is intended to be used to deepen and modernize American ports of all sizes. Instead, the government has dipped into the fund and used the money for non-infrastructure projects.

The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is not solely responsible for our infrastructure issues. Congress has not passed a Water Infrastructure bill since 2007. Prior to 2007, similar legislation was passed every two years.

My district’s port in Georgetown, S.C., has fallen victim to government abuse, inaction and overregulation. The Georgetown Port must be dredged to its authorized depth, so it may see the volume of ships it once did. However, it is currently ineligible for federal funding to dredge until it can prove that it meets a tonnage requirement. But, the port cannot reach the required tonnage depth until it is dredged. This is a classic “chicken and the egg” problem.

Georgetown willfully collected an import tax to raise the funds needed to deepen the port, generating more than half of the funding needed to dredge. In 2007, the port received the authorization it needs to move forward, but has been stalled due to the aforementioned tonnage requirement.

Fortunately, both chambers passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act this Congress. WRRDA authorizes 26 port projects, increasing our country’s number of Post-Panamax ready ports. This legislation addresses absurd government regulations that have created senseless bureaucratic traps, like Georgetown’s “chicken and the egg” predicament.

WRRDA also restores the Harbor Trust Fund, ensuring that 80 percent of its funds are used for our country’s ports by 2020. It is imperative some of these funds are used to dredge South-Atlantic Gulf ports. This large region of our country cannot be left out of the Post-Panamax trade game.

We still have work to do, but this a good start in the right direction. Full capacity and full functioning ports result in full pockets for consumers, employees, contractors, shippers, and businesses that depend on water trade. I am committed to doing all that I can to restore our country’s competitiveness.

Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the Budget Committee and the Small Business Committee.