During a visit to the Port of Savannah on Monday, Vice President Joseph Biden made an impassioned appeal for investment in transportation infrastructure, saying efficient highways, railroads, ports, and inland waterways provide such an obvious economic benefit that they should rise above partisan politics when Congress makes funding decisions.
"Where do people go to build their plants? They go to build their plants, with good reason, where they can get the greatest return on their investment, where they can do it the most economically, and where they can do it quickly and reliably," Biden said. "And it makes a difference if they get delayed a day getting out of port, or it makes a difference whether or not they can fully load every one of those container ships and have to leave 2, 5, 10, 20 percent of their cargo off because the draft is too deep. It makes a difference whether they can do it safely and securely - because it's profit. Time is money."
Biden, who cast himself as a long-time champion of ports during his long career in the U.S. Senate, said manufacturers, after many years spent moving production to low-cost countries, are increasingly building plants in the United States because of U.S. advantages in skilled workers, education, automation, protection of intellectual property rights, and reliable supplies of domestic natural gas. The manufacturing renaissance contributed to a record $2.2 trillion in exports last year, he said, adding that Savannah is a net exporter of containerized goods.
Attracting new companies to set up shop and create jobs at home will be more challenging, the vice president said, if the United States has inferior infrastructure. He pointed to the Port of Hong Kong and Beijing's international airport as examples of world-class transportation facilities that exist outside the United States because other countries are willing to invest in infrastructure that efficiently moves people and goods.
"I'm sick and tired of us standing back and not catching up with the rest of the world. We had the finest infrastructure in the world in the past," he said, according to a transcript of his remarks forwarded by his office.
Despite the faster infrastructure advances in other countries and the growth of exports as a percentage of U.S. output, the U.S. political system still can't move quickly enough to get key ports such as Savannah deepened, Biden lamented. He did not mention any specific pieces of legislation before Congress, such as the reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) that has languished for five years, next year's debate on a multi-year surface transportation reauthorization bill or President Obama's proposal to stimulate job growth with a $50 billion "Fix-It First" plan aimed at the highways and bridges in most need of rehabilitation.
After 14 years of planning and study by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Georgia port is closer to moving ahead on a $652 million project to dredge a major stretch of the Savannah River from 42 to 47 feet to allow passage by much larger cargo vessels, which Biden said could carry 50 percent more cargo than today. The extra depth allows vessels to carry heavier loads, which is especially important for exports such as wheat and lumber that tend to be heavier than imported consumer goods. The Army Corps has signed off on the project and it was authorized by the Senate in the spring. A House version of the WRDA renewal introduced last week also includes authorization for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, but remains to be voted on. The final step is for congressional appropriations committees to commit funds for the $421 million federal share.
"We’re arguing about whether or not to deepen this port another seven feet?" Biden said. "Folks, look, it’s time we get moving. I’m sick of this stuff. It’s time we go. And, folks, this is not a partisan issue. This is an economic issue."
Trade, which is expected to double by the end of the next decade, will be a catalyst for growth in well-paying jobs, but the United States can't take full advantage of that opportunity unless its ports have the capacity to handle the next-generation of massive container ships and other vessels that now can make their way from Asia through the Suez Canal or will be able to transit the Panama Canal in 2015 when a massive expansion project there is completed, Biden said.
"You know the interesting thing about infrastructure? You can't pick it up and take it away. It doesn’t go abroad. It's here. It stays. It creates jobs while you're building it, and it sustains jobs when it's over," Biden argued.
He noted that ports are part part of larger freight ecosystems that depend on rail and highway connectivity, which is why Caterpillar exports earth moving equipment and retailers such as Target and IKEA import so much merchandise through Savannah.
The Obama administration is working hard to achieve a regional free trade agreement between a dozen Latin American, North American and Asian countries that ring the Pacific and to bring down trade barriers with the European Union, but those efforts to increase U.S. exports will be undermined if the infrastructure is inadequate to effectively funnel greater volumes of U.S.-made goods to other countries, he stressed.
Helping to generate economic prosperity in other countries is good because it generates demand for U.S. products, the vice pesident said. Drawing a comparison to the famous quip allegedly made by notorious bank robber Willie Sutton who said he robbed banks because that's where the money is, Biden said, "Let me tell you why we want Europe to grow, why we want China to grow, why we want Brazil to grow: Because that’s where the customers are. A level playing field - competition is written into our DNA. We can out-compete anybody in the world. That is not hyperbole. That’s the history of the story of this country. But we need the most modern infrastructure in the world to be able to accommodate that. And it starts here, right here in Savannah, Georgia."
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Georgia's two Republican senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, Rep. Jack Kingston, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson accompanied the vice president on the tour of the port.
Biden also spoke Monday at the Port of Charleston in South Carolina where he spoke about the need to deepen Charleston's harbor. - Eric Kulisch