WASHINGTON — The nation’s ports aren’t ready for changes in global trade patterns and the United States risks losing out to competitors if the federal government doesn’t speed up improvements, a group of port officials told lawmakers Thursday.
The officials, who represent six Florida ports, pleaded for help from Congress to push the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move faster on port improvement projects ahead of the completion of a major expansion of the Panama Canal in 2015.
“American exceptionalism is dead in our industry,” said Paul Anderson, director of the Port of Tampa.
The port officials blamed government red tape for holding them back. The corps conducts studies of port expansions and oversees harbor dredging and maintenance. However, it takes years, sometimes a decade or more, to get projects done, the officials said. That’s time they increasingly feel they don’t have in a fast-changing global economy.
“Get with it; understand today’s reality,” said Bill Johnson, director of the Port of Miami, where a project is underway to deepen the harbor to accommodate larger container ships.
Though both the lawmakers and the port officials directed the brunt of their criticism at the corps, no one from the agency was present to respond. Amanda Ellison, a spokeswoman for the corps’ Jacksonville District, which oversees many port projects in Florida, said in a statement that the agency would work with port authorities to resolve their concerns.
However, she added, “We are confined by the regulations and policies that govern us.”
Johnson and other port officials found a sympathetic ear in the lawmakers they met with. In an otherwise sharply divided Congress, shared frustration over delayed port improvements melted the usual partisan differences away.
“I’m going to try to prevent the steam from coming out of my ears,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. “I’ve never in my life seen a more incompetent bureaucracy.”
“It’s the most aggravating thing I heard in my life,” said Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla. “It makes me want to throw chairs.”
Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., called Florida’s ports “one of the best-kept secrets” in the state, job centers that employ thousands and contribute billions of dollars to the state and national economy.
“Trade stops, the country stops,” said Carlos Buqueras, executive director of Port Manatee, the closest U.S. port to the Panama Canal. “It’s crucial we maintain our ports.”
Buqueras also met Thursday with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who requested, and received, a $9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2010 to make improvements at Port Manatee.
Florida ports want to take advantage of the potential import and export opportunities the Panama Canal could bring. But just as they don’t want to fall behind foreign competitors, they also don’t want other U.S. ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to be the only ones with room for bigger ships.
“I want Florida to have those ports when those ships come through the Panama Canal,” said Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla.
Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., noted that it had been six years since Congress last passed a water resources bill, and that new legislation would help address concerns about the corps.
“It’s not just a Florida problem, it’s a national problem,” she said.
Kurt Nagle, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Port Authorities, said that other countries, including Panama, Brazil and China, aren’t waiting to meet the challenges of changing trade patterns and volumes, and larger ships.
“They’re making decisions and investments and establishing policies as nations to be able to complete in international trade,” he said. “We are really lagging far behind.”
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