All of the ports on the East Coast “have to get in the game,” Vice President Joe Biden said Monday, and get ready to accept larger cargo ships that will come through an expanded Panama Canal by 2015.
Biden, accompanied by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and several members of Congress, presented a $10 million federal grant to the Port of Baltimore to widen its shipping channel and improve rail access.
“More than ever, we are a maritime nation,” the vice president said, also flanked by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Barbara Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin.
Baltimore and Norfolk, Va., are the only two East Coast ports that are deep enough for the larger, “post-Panamax” ships, and others may have to catch up. “Post-Panamax” refers to ships larger than the current maximum size limits for the Panama Canal.
“Unless we expand ports on the East Coast, we’re going to fall behind,” Biden said, referencing U.S. rival China, which has spent heavily on infrastructure.
In a time of scarce federal resources, port agencies will shoulder much of the cost. The American Association of Port Authorities projects that the nation’s ports will spend $46 billion on improvements by 2017. That includes deeper and wider channels and harbors, upgraded dockside facilities and improved rail and highway connections.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s ports a “D+” in its most recent infrastructure report card, and the society estimates that ports will need $16 billion more in public investment than will be available by 2020.
The Obama administration has set aside some funding for ports in its Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER program. Of the $474 million in program funds available this year, about $100 million went to port and port-related projects, including the $10 million for Baltimore.
Other recipients include ports in Houston; Pascagoula, Miss.; Wilmington, Del.; and Duluth, Minn. Three Florida ports, at Miami, Bradenton and Jacksonville, received TIGER grants in 2010 and 2011.
Among other East Coast ports, the Port of New York and New Jersey needs to raise a highway bridge to allow larger container ships to pass. To the south, the ports of Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., are working toward deepening their harbors and channels.
Biden is scheduled to visit the Charleston and Savannah ports on Sept. 16, ahead of a trip to the Panama Canal. However, he said Monday that the Panama trip may be postponed because of the crisis in Syria.
In 2010, marine ports handled 70 percent of U.S. imports, valued at $944 billion, and 76 percent of U.S. exports, valued at $469 billion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. President Barack Obama has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports by the time he leaves office, and port improvements are a critical part of that effort.
“Moving cargo is the lifeblood of our economy,” said Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte, N.C.
Continued budgetary uncertainties in Washington hang over the nation’s aging infrastructure, with Congress and the White House frequently at odds on how to pay for repairs. The TIGER program was created as part of Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus and has continued every year since. The competitive, merit-based grants are popular with mayors and governors across the political spectrum.
The program enjoys support in the Democratic-majority Senate, which has budgeted $550 million for it next year. However, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted to eliminate the program, as well as other signature White House transportation efforts, including high-speed rail.
Separately, the House was expected this month to consider a bill to authorize an array of water-related projects across the country, including improvements to ports and inland waterways, coastal protection and flood control. The Senate passed its version of the Water Resources Development Act in May.