Making waves – Part 4: On improvement, U.S. ports getting down to business

In the vast American trade machine it’s almost as if seaports are the unsung heroes. Sure, they are there, but do we really think about them all that much?

Crane_BridgeShipTake, for example, the import of a car that was manufactured overseas. When the vehicle makes it to the car dealer lot or showroom floor, I seriously doubt folks in the market for such give more than a passing thought if that, regarding what was involved in the import process. Although ports are back-of-the-mind subject matter to most I would think, nevertheless, they provide such an important function.

With that said, this part – Part 4 in this four-part infrastructure series – deals with ports.

Of great import (and export)

So, how important are America’s ports?

“More than 95 percent (by volume) of overseas trade produced or consumed by the United States moves through the nation’s ports,” acknowledged the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). “With the anticipated Panama Canal expansion, there has been a 9 percent increase in the size of ships calling at U.S. ports. Despite the global economy continuing to grow, federal funding has declined for navigable waterways and landside freight connections.”

It would seem America’s ports have their work cut out in trying to keep current. As it were, in grading domestic ports infrastructure, the engineering society assigned such a letter grade of “C.”

If 95 percent of all international trade consumed and produced by the U.S. enters and exits our ports, respectively, it’s incumbent upon these facilities and associated infrastructure to be shipshape, no pun intended. Earning a grade of C to me means America’s ports as a whole barely squeak by, which tells me, ports-wise, there is plenty room for improvement.

So, concerning port improvement, just what is of import?

The thing I’m thinking about is deeper navigation channels leading to the ports themselves if they are not already deep-water facilities. Dredging – to accommodate larger ships – and ongoing maintenance of navigation channels will be needed.

Also coming to mind, as part of the improvement package and program is “expansion.” I would imagine a good many stateside ports are ripe for this very thing.

Through suitable channels

With regard to port access, it is obviously extremely important to have the least restrictive access channels in order that efficiency levels are maximized. Meanwhile, just as important is the landside connecting apparatus. Port-served railway and/or highway provisions are absolute.

Along these lines, where appropriate, direct linkages between port terminal and rail facilities will further improve operations.

Through direct interface of port terminals with rail intermodal yards (on-dock rail facilities), where containers would otherwise be drayed between port terminal and rail yard, not only is one step of the container cargo-handling process eliminated, but there is the potential for a savings of time and reduced fuel usage and with that both reduced road congestion and emissions of harmful air pollutants.

To use an analogy the whole system must function as if it were a finely-tuned, well-greased machine.

Overall, based on the coupling of present capacity constraints and projected future demand, what this tells me is that without significant improvement, port infrastructure capacity will be grossly inadequate in terms of meeting future capacity needs. Change seems both absolute and inevitable.

Much work remains ahead I’m sure.

– Alan Kandel