A. Paul Anderson: Governments must build infrastructure so ports can prosper

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, is delivered through our port.

The importance of maintaining and improving the infrastructure for the movement of cargos cannot be overstated. When cargo 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.

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.

Take the case of maritime-related freight transportation infrastructure alone, such as highway and waterway links with ports. If the U.S. were to spend an additional $15.8 billion each year between now and 2020 on these links, the results would be an additional $270 billion in exports, increased gross domestic product by $697 billion, 738,000 additional jobs, and a $770 annual benefit for every American household, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

To make that happen, we need a motivated electorate, helping our federal leaders understand how important it is to raise the priority for these investments. By reauthorizing the Water Resources Development Act this year, 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 interstate highways and 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.

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 recession, cargo volumes will continue to grow. As our nation invests in transportation infrastructure, we must ensure that our ports and their needs are high on the list.

Fortunately for 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, have had the vision to make unprecedented investments in transportation infrastructure during the past four years.

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. We look to our local, state and federal government partners to improve these links, the final pieces in this transportation infrastructure puzzle.

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. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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