THE BLOG
01/27/2016 05:30 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2017

Moving Forward: Investing in Our Ports Is About Investing in Our Middle Class

Note: This is the third piece in a series that explores the connection between a robust transportation system and a stronger middle class. The second piece shows the positive impact investments in high speed rail can have on the economy and working families.

The modern, global economy lives by one rule: faster is better. As technology breakthroughs and innovations take hold, the world's markets demand efficiency, fluidity and speed. Nations that fail to keep up watch as other countries reap the benefits.

You would think America -- known for its forward-looking investments and innovations -- would have no problem meeting these demands. But, sadly, we're stuck in an era of underinvestment. Our task ahead -- as I recently wrote -- is to convince the people we elect that this era of dangerous austerity policies is nothing to brag about. It's harming American competitiveness and elected officials need to be held accountable if they don't listen.

Need proof? Just look at our degraded seaports. By acting as gateways to domestic and international markets, our ports play a critical role in our ability to quickly and efficiently transport raw materials, finished products and everything in between. While other nations see the value in port investments -- many of our global competitors have ports that can accommodate the largest, most modern ships -- U.S. politicians have allowed American seaports to fall behind. Narrow, shallow channels and outdated, inadequate facilities mean our ports struggle to keep up with demand. Many American ports cannot accommodate the world's largest ships. In this brutally competitive global economy, starving our ports of resources and infrastructure is tantamount to surrender.

In order to meet projected 2025 freight volumes, the American Association of Port Authorities says nearly a third of U.S. ports need $100 million each in upgrades. This level of underinvestment doesn't just affect seaside communities. America's chronically underfunded ports negatively impact our entire economy and undermine our already shrinking middle class.

That's because the inability of our ports to keep up with demand puts a significant strain on America's entire supply chain. Seventy percent of this country's imports and 75 percent of our exports go through our seaports, meaning inadequate infrastructure at a single port can create a ripple effect felt by millions. Take, for example, what happened last year at the Port of Virginia. A surge of containers from three large ships put the port over capacity, creating a traffic jam that was 13 lanes wide, 10 trucks deep and took eight hours to clear. Seven of our country's 10 busiest ports experience these kinds of congestion problems regularly, and massive delays due to underinvestment cost our economy billions each year and undercut middle-class jobs.

The story doesn't end there. Nearly a quarter of all U.S. manufacturing jobs are supported by exports, and for every $1 billion in manufactured exports shipped through seaports, 15,000 U.S. jobs are created. Additionally, two-thirds of all U.S. wheat and wheat flour and one-third of soybean and rice production is exported via U.S. ports. Given that our seaports play a significant role in supporting our manufacturing, agricultural and other key sectors, one has to wonder: how can the U.S. boost production when our ports aren't equipped to handle increased volumes? The answer is simple: we can't. Failure to invest in our ports threatens hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs and is contributing to an overall drop in personal income.

Studies show adequate investment in our nation's ports can reverse these trends. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, pumping $15.8 billion into U.S. seaports and waterways through 2020 would allow the U.S. to protect $270 billion in exports, 738,000 jobs annually and $872 billion in personal income. The good news? Some of this money already exists and is directed to port spending, thanks to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF). The bad news? For years, Congress has raided this money and spent it on other priorities. That practice is slowly starting to change thanks to some bipartisan legislative reforms, but this trust fund supports only a portion of what is needed to upgrade and improve one of our most critical economic arteries.

Sadly, poor infrastructure investment isn't the only threat to American ports. Historically, thanks to strong union density in the sector, ports have been a source of good, decent-paying jobs, and remain one of the sectors that still fuels middle class job creation. Now, corporate special interests and some of their allies in Congress are trying to undermine that by threatening the rights of port employees to bargain collectively. Attacking the men and women who do the crucial work of keeping our ports operational only puts further stress on the American supply chain, hinders our ability to compete in a global economy and contributes to a middle class that has seen a steady slide since the 1970s. If the goal is to expand the middle class -- as politicians tell us it is -- the last thing we should be doing is weakening unions that have a long history of boosting incomes and expanding opportunity for all working people.

If the politicians in Washington are as serious about helping middle-class families get ahead as they claim, investing in our ports -- and protecting the rights of the men and women who work at them -- need to be top priorities. Modernizing our ports so that they can accommodate the world's largest ships would not only create good longshore and construction jobs, but it would ease congestion, make American ports far more competitive and allow our economy to grow. The ripple effect from this kind of investment would be felt throughout our country, from small business owners in California, to farmers in Kansas, to factory workers in Ohio, and would secure America's position as a global and economic powerhouse.