As a nation, many of the goods we use every day — from car parts to computers, to the clothes we wear and the meals we eat — must first pass through one or more of the nation’s seaports. Closer to home, every resident and visitor in West and Central Florida will use some product that has been shipped into Port Tampa Bay in Tampa. For example, all of the gasoline consumed in our region, as well as the jet fuel for our region’s airports, is delivered through our port.
The importance of maintaining and improving the infrastructure for the movement of cargos cannot be overstated. When cargo movement is delayed, redirected or seriously impeded, important shipping deadlines are missed, orders get canceled, the costs of goods goes up, companies lose sales, businesses downsize and America’s international competitiveness sinks.
Admittedly, it’s hard to make transportation infrastructure a top funding priority when so much of what we hear or read about it are doomsday scenarios if it isn’t fixed. Rather than use scare tactics, it’s time to look at the value of infrastructure improvements and why they offer such a great return on investment (ROI).
Take the case of maritime-related freight transportation infrastructure alone, such as highway and waterway links with ports. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, if the U.S. were to spend an additional $15.8 billion each year between now and 2020 on these intermodal links, the results would be an additional $270 billion in exports, increased gross domestic product by $697 billion, 738,000 additional jobs created, and a $770 annual benefit for every American household.
What’s needed to bring these benefits to fruition is a motivated electorate, helping our federal government leaders understand how important it is to raise the priority for these investments. By reauthorizing the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) this year, one that our state has spent a great deal of time nurturing with trips to Washington on behalf all Florida ports, Congress has shown that it has the wherewithal to make freight mobility a bipartisan priority.
We must continue creating a national freight strategy that includes consideration of cargo flowing through our seaports. To be competitive in the global marketplace, diverse cargos require a variety of infrastructure needs that should be incorporated into a national freight plan. That includes integrating existing connectors between the interstate highway system and intermodal facilities, such as seaports and airports, into a larger strategy.
This work is taking place in the Tampa area. The new I-4 Connector is an excellent example that will pay dividends for generations to come.
It is appropriate, on the heels of the dynamic town hall gathering, hosted by the Tampa Hillsborough EDC and the Pinellas County EDC on May 9, for all of the Tampa Bay area to be aware of Infrastructure Week, May 12-16. Recognized nationwide, its activities are designed to inform, educate and explore innovative approaches, solutions and best practices being developed to modernize the nation’s aging infrastructure.
Our nation needs to dedicate funding for freight projects of national and regional significance. Identifying and funding intermodal freight connectors is vital to port efficiency and cargo mobility. In the same vein, rail connector projects eligible for investment should specifically include rail connectors to commercial ports. Locally, the addition of two new post-Panamax gantry cranes over the next 18 months will add significant capability and expansion to Florida’s largest port.
As America recovers from the worst economic recession in our lifetimes, cargo volumes will continue to grow. As our nation invests in transportation infrastructure, we must ensure that our ports and their needs to efficiently move freight are high on the list. Fortunately for us in Florida, the state has established a model approach to this type of investment. Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature, with the help of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and its benchmark “Trade and Logistics” study, have had the vision to make unprecedented investments in transportation infrastructure during the past four years, underscoring the nexus of such investment and Florida’s growth in international trade. But we cannot stop there.
Today, our country faces enormous challenges. Its ports — which, with their private-sector partners, are spending more than $9 billion annually on improvements to their own facilities — are making the necessary investments to build and maintain a world-class maritime transportation system. These investments support U.S. businesses and jobs, our global competitiveness and our entire economy. Yet ports are neither responsible for, nor have the resources to, make many of the most necessary transportation infrastructure investments, particularly the connecting links just outside the ports’ jurisdiction. We look to our local, state and federal government partners to improve these links, the final pieces in this transportation infrastructure puzzle. Infrastructure Week provides an opportunity to reflect on how transportation investment truly enriches our lives.
A. Paul Anderson is port president and CEO, Port Tampa Bay. Jeff Brandes , R-St. Petersburg, serves in the Florida Senate, where he chairs the transportation committee.