AAPA Seaports Magazine
By: Congressman Ted Poe and Congressman Allan Lowenthall
Whether it is the food we eat, the cars we drive, the light bulbs we use to light our homes, or the clothing we wear, every American household is impacted every single day by the activity of our ports. This activity accounts for over a quarter of our economy, generating trillions of dollars and bringing in over $300 billion in tax revenue each year. As Co-Chairs of the Congressional PORTS Caucus, it is our privilege and duty to be the voice of one of our nation’s top economic engines.
Ports are the lungs of America -- imperative to the nation’s stability and bringing much-needed fresh air into the economy. However, our ports only operate efficiently if our infrastructure continues to be updated. With the recently completed expansion of the Panama Canal, many of our nation’s ports have found themselves unable to accommodate the new, larger cargo vessels. With upgrades and support from the U.S. government, including those of us in Congress, they can be open for this new business.
It is the federal government’s duty to maintain the safety, strength, and capabilities of our ports and waterways. In 1986, Congress created the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) to pay for port maintenance and dredging needs, and it is funded by taxing those entities that use ports. In other words, those that use a port help pay for the port’s maintenance. However, in recent years, Congress has failed to help our nation’s ports, electing to spend funds meant for our nation’s ports on pet projects. Full utilization of the HMTF has been, and will continue to be, a top issue for the Congressional PORTS Caucus. We intend to introduce meaningful legislation to address this continual problem in the 115th Congress, and we call on other Members of Congress to join us in this fight.
The PORTS Caucus is also focused on ensuring that our ports serve as a first layer of security. Each year, our nation’s ports handle over 46 million shipping containers and more than 14 million international passengers, and container traffic is projected to grow at an annual rate of 5 percent between now and 2030. Despite these projected increases in traffic, our ports do not have enough Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents to help improve screening capacity. In 2014, Congress appropriated funds to CBP to hire more than 2,000 new agents, but only 20 agents were assigned to seaports. This is unacceptable and presents serious security risks. It has also led to delays in dock-side inspecting, creating a ripple-effect through our economic supply chain.
The lack of appropriate staffing by the CBP in recent years is a difficult challenge to overcome, but is not the only security issue we face. Successfully screening cargo containers is paramount to ensuring that dangerous cargo does not enter our vast transit system.
In 2007, Congress and the Bush Administration passed legislation requiring that 100 percent of the containers entering our seaports be extensively screened. The overall feasibility of this mandate still remains to be seen, but it is an important goal to work towards. While there are private manufacturers that can help meet this mandate, X-ray scanners are very costly and realistically, Congress would only fund without a spending increase.
Each new Congress brings with it fresh opportunities to effectively address areas of concern. As co-chairs of the Congressional PORTS Caucus, we are focused on pushing for full utilization of the HMTF, improving the infrastructure surrounding - and within - our nation’s seaports, as well as maintaining and improving the security capabilities of our seaports. We are committed to ensuring our nation’s ports are safe, ready, and able to continue to drive our economy and protect our country.