In a speech at the Port of Jacksonville Thursday, President Barack Obama said Congress needs to move faster modernizing the nation's ports to support new trade trends that will help the U.S. economy grow.
He took credit for last year's executive order — part of the "We Can't Wait Initiative" — to speed up the permitting process for 50 major projects, including deepening harbors in Jacksonville, Charleston, Miami, Savannah and New York/New Jersey. But Rep. Bud Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, issued a statement saying that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers missed the April deadline for completing reviews for the Jacksonville dredging project and that Congress can't authorize spending until the permit is completed.
The Office of Management and Budget Web site for projects in the permitting pipeline now indicates a May 31 target date for completing the Jacksonville feasibility study.
"Apparently, we can wait," Shuster said.
The Department of Transportation this month did complete its environmental review of JaxPort's intermodal rail container transfer facility on time.
The congressman reiterated that one of his top priorities is to pass a renewal of the Water Resources Development Act, the vehicle for approving spending on dredging projects. The Senate passed a WRDA bill earlier this year.
Shuster said reforms to streamline environmental reviews and accelerate project delivery need to apply to all projects, not just a handful.
In the JaxPort speech, Obama's primary theme was that building a long-lasting economy that lifts the middle class is being stymied by House Republicans playing political games when the nation needs to invest in physical, human and science infrastructure.
Manufacturing is rebounding because production costs overseas are rising, and the United States has become a cheap source of natural gas that provides feedstock for manufacturing operations. Obama stressed that he wanted to continue that trend by investing in infrastructure and taking advantage of growth opportunities in the production of clean energy technologies and modernizing energy infrastructure.
"And we need modern ports so we can move more goods made in America out to the rest of the world," he said.
The President repeated his economic agenda of the past two years for creating jobs, which has not made headway in Congress. Political observers say speeches like the one in Jacksonville, and one the day before in Illinois, are more designed to set the framework for debate when the debt ceiling debate rears its head in the fall. Democrats are expected to argue that the government is providing real benefit to citizens, such as stabilizing the country after the financial collapse and providing affordable health care, and that the debt ceiling needs to be raised to allow borrowing for past expenditures. Republicans argue that government programs need to be downsized and say they won't raise the debt ceiling without implementing large budget cuts.
Despite the pressure to take more austerity measures, the U.S. deficit during the past four years has fallen at the fastest rate in more than 60 years, from 10 percent of Gross Domestic Product to 7 percent of GDP.
"If we don’t make the necessary investments to ensure that America is a magnet for good jobs — investments in education, manufacturing, research and transportation, and information networks — we’re just waving the white flag of surrender to other countries as they forge ahead in this global economy. That kind of attitude is saying there’s nothing we can do to help middle-class families compete and win and grow. And that's a bad bargain for the middle class," Obama said, according to a transcript
Investment in port infrastructure attracts shippers to locate facilities near seaports and, along with the completion of the Panama Canal expansion in 2015, is why the White House ordered agencies to speed up the review process for high-priority projects last year, Obama said.
In February, the White House set a goal of cutting the time for permitting and environmental reviews for major projects in half after a couple of years' work setting up a structure for managing interagency coordination and redesigning the approval process. (See the magazine Web extra, "Fix it fast
," for more details. Advice on a how to establish a disciplined federal investment approach to port investment is available in "Newsome offers principles for funding ports
"In a couple of years, new supertankers [sic, container ships] are going to start coming through the Panama Canal. Those supertankers can hold three times the amount of cargo. We want those supertankers coming here to Jacksonville," Obama said.
"If we’ve got more supertankers coming here, that means more jobs at the terminals. That means more warehouses in the surrounding area. That means more contractors are getting jobs setting up those warehouses. That means they’ve got more money to spend at the restaurant. That means the waitress has more money to spend to buy her iPod. It starts working for everybody. If we want our workers and businesses to compete, then our ports have to be ready to receive those supertankers," he said. "Otherwise, they’ll go to Brazil or some other place."
Deferring maintenance and infrastructure upgrades, the President said after touring MOL's TraPac container terminal along with new Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, is a drag on the U.S. economy.
"We now have got to keep at it. The businesses of tomorrow will not locate near old roads, outdated ports; they’re going to go to places where the ports are good, the roads are good, the rail lines are good, you’ve got high-speed Internet, you’ve got high-tech schools, trained workers, systems that move air traffic and auto traffic faster. We can't defer things that we know we're going to have to do and, by the way, would put people to work right now doing them.
"But that's what we're doing right now. As a share of our economy, we’re investing less in rebuilding America than we did two decades ago. We're spending less on fixing our infrastructure than China is, than Germany is. All our competitors, they know we've got to start taking care of this stuff. We're lagging behind," he said.
"And the irony is right now it’s cheaper to build than it’s been since the 1950s. You’ve got a whole bunch of construction workers who are looking for work right now. You’ve got a whole bunch of contractors who will come in under — with low bids, and they'll come in on time. So now is the time for us to do it. The longer we put this off, the more expensive it will be; the less competitive we'll be. . . . But making sure we've got world-class infrastructure, that shouldn’t be a partisan issue. That’s an American issue."
Obama called on Congress to pass the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill, which is based on last year's MAP-21 surface transportation spending guidelines but doesn't include any new funding to expand transportation infrastructure investment. The Senate bill would fund the authorized amount, while the House bill would provide less money.
He made a similar pitch and offered an infrastructure investment plan of his own during a visit to the Port of Miami on March 29. The Port of Miami and state of Florida last year received final approval for dredging the main channel at the port to 50 feet. Construction is slated to begin next month, but Miami-Dade County and the state are picking up the entire tab for the $152 million project because Congress has not appropriated any money yet.
Rep. Janice Hahn, the co-chair of the congressional PORTS Caucus; the Jacksonville Port Authority; and the American Maritime Partnership issued statements applauding President Obama for his commitment to improving port infrastructure.
The American Maritime Partnership and Rep. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Coast Guard and maritime transportation, used the occasion to seek more support for the domestic maritime industry. Duncan called on the administration to support U.S. cargo preference laws for government-impelled food aid and other shipments, as well as aid for the U.S. shipbuilding industry. - Eric Kulisch