- - Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A popular buzzword in Washington, D.C., right now is infrastructure and how we can get to our goal of seeing a plan finalized. As we continue to discuss an infrastructure plan, we must look beyond the traditional definition of “infrastructure” projects and include projects that add economic value, such as ports.

The Ports of Savannah and Brunswick are economic engines for the United States, and the need to maintain and expand these cannot be overstated.

In Washington, the conversation has been on the economy, creating jobs, and increasing our GDP, but we need to focus on the tools that will get us there. Our nation’s infrastructure was once the greatest in the world, from the interstate highway system under President Dwight Eisenhower to the creation of modern airports ferrying people to all parts of the globe.

While those infrastructure endeavors helped to catapult the United States to a global and economic power, they are now faced with the effects of age and neglect. The demand on our nation’s ports has continued to grow, and our investment in those outlets should reflect that.

The second-busiest port on the East Coast, the Port of Savannah, has also experienced record growth. Just this month, the largest ship to ever call on the Port of Savannah, the Theodore Roosevelt, made its first stop in Savannah. The arrival of that 14,414 TEU container ship marked another year of record growth for the port. While this incredible growth is credited to the Georgia Port Authority’s planning and logistics capabilities, it will soon face the problem of physical and environmental constraints.

The Port of Savannah is currently undergoing a major expansion, called the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP), to deepen the river from 42 feet to 47 feet in order to accommodate the larger ships now coming through the Panama Canal. That project, which initially started in 1996, has been nearly two decades in the making. It is one of the most exhaustively studied projects in the nation and takes great lengths to protect our environment and the wildlife that call it home. That project is now under construction, but there is a lot that still needs to be done.

To keep the project on time, we need annual funding of roughly $100 million until its completion. This year’s budget request, while it’s been the highest in project history, comes in at $50 million — well short of what is needed. Each year the project is underfunded, the country loses out on nearly $282 million in economic benefit from the project’s completion, as well as seeing increases in the cost of the project to the American taxpayer.

Projects like SHEP are a no-brainer. With an estimated return of more than $7.2 per $1 spent, it’s a model of what some initial investment can do for long-term growth. We need our nation’s ports, like the Ports of Savannah and Brunswick, to be a priority in any infrastructure package that is developed.

The focus needs to be on getting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the resources they need to complete their backlog of deep-draft navigation projects and on funding infrastructure projects that will be an economic boon for the nation.

As the world’s busiest and most advanced ports continue to develop outside of our borders, we must look at what we can do domestically. The deepening of the Port of Savannah is essential to our ability to maintain competitiveness with other global ports and to accommodate the rising demand placed on the system. Without a focus on the ports and what they contribute to our economy, we will continue to fall behind in international trade and will only grow our trade deficit.

We must work together to promote ways in which our country can grow economically and remain competitive in today’s global marketplace. Now is our opportunity to bring our country’s infrastructure into the 21st century, and our ports are leading the way.

Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, Georgia Republican, serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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