Port and canal expansions could leave U.S. roads lacking

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 4/10/2013

Bigger ships are coming, and that is fueling expansion projects at U.S. ports to compete for the cargo. A big driver for this activity is the Panama Canal expansion project. Senate committee leaders are questioning whether U.S. road and bridge infrastructure will be able to keep up with an anticipated shift in freight patterns once the canal opens in a few years.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing Wednesday, April 10, to discuss the effects of the Panama Canal expansion on U.S. transportation systems.

Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, questioned whether “the world beyond the ports ” – i.e., roadway infrastructure – will be able to handle future demands for freight movement.

“We have grown accustomed to an ad hoc approach to maintaining our surface transportation network with which many seem content. But I am not,” Rockefeller said.

“This lack of planning and shortsighted thinking doesn’t reflect what our country truly needs: a strategic, long-term vision for rebuilding our transportation system.”

He said the U.S. is falling behind other countries that are expanding their surface transportation networks, and he took the opportunity to blast plans that do not look past the short-term.

“Duct tape and good will do not suffice when Asia and much of the rest of the world are readying their infrastructure and workers to compete in this global economy,” Rockefeller said.

“A strategic vision doesn’t involve stop-gap measure after stop-gap measure, lurching from one inadequate funding bill to the next in the name of progress. It means taking a hard look at what we need from our ports, rail, and highway systems over the long term. … If we can’t move goods to market – into, out of and throughout the country – our export-driven economy cannot thrive.  In fact, it will begin to wither.”

Hearing witnesses included ATA Vice Chairman Phillip Byrd; Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ed Hamburger; Virginia Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Jeff Keever; and deepwater port consultant John Vickerman of Vickerman and Associates.

Byrd highlighted the need to address road and bridge funding, expand truck parking and maintain the federal fuel tax to pay for infrastructure.

Vickerman said the Panama Canal currently accommodates ships with 4,800 TEU containers, known as twenty-foot-equivalent units. In the future, the Panama Canal will carry ships with more than 12,000 TEUs on board – nearly three times the cargo.

Ports are being widened and deepened on all coasts around the country especially on the East Coast.

Shifts in freight patterns are not just the concern of big industry, importers and exporters.

Although not invited to speak at the hearing, small-business truckers have a tremendous stake in America’s freight movement.

OOIDA supports a strong federal investment in roads and bridges.

“The Panama Canal expansion is going to change freight patterns on the roads and on the rails. There’s not going to be an automatic easy solution out there,” OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Ryan Bowley said.

He said the highway bill known as MAP-21, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, brought necessary reforms to keep highway funding with highways, but the bill only lasts through September 2014.

“We need more long-term funding for highway, bridge and capacity expansion,” Bowley said.

The trick is going to be how to pay for it.

OOIDA currently stands by the federal fuel tax as the preferred user fee to pay for roadway and bridge projects, make highways safer and reduce congestion.

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