By Congressman Bud Shuster

Editor’s Note: Congressman Bud Shuster, Chairman of the US House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently led a delegation to inspect ocean shipping and ship building facilities in Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal. His article is based, in part, on knowledge gained on that trip.

The fresh fruits and vegetables on your family table may be from the farms of Portugal, making the six-day trip across the ocean in refrigerated container ships from Lisbon to the states. And nearly 2,000 passengers recently steamed into Venice aboard the Grand Princess, which, running the length of two and one-half football fields, is the largest cruise ship in the world. About 90 percent of its passengers that day, as is the case every day on most cruise ships, were Americans.

In Pennsylvania, hundreds of our products - among them Cannondale bikes, Cove shoes, JLG lifts, Freedom Forge wheels, Letterkenny ammunition, and Empire chickens travel by rail or truck to our ocean ports for shipment across the oceans of the world.

With the growth of the global economy, coupled with better transportation systems, the hills and valleys of Central Pennsylvania are as close today to Europe and the Far East as Pittsburgh was to Philadelphia a hundred years ago. Pennsylvania is now ocean-shipping $5.3 billion annually around the world. Most of it in twenty or forty-foot containers on giant ocean ships. The US container trade has nearly tripled in the past twenty years from 48 to 137 million tons, and is projected to more than double again in the next twenty years.

Thousands of American jobs now depend upon that trade. Our prosperity is tied to our ability to transport our products efficiently and economically to their destinations. Our maritime transportation system moves over two billion tons of foreign and domestic cargo annually, contributing $742 billion to our economy and generating thirteen million jobs.

The great containerships of the world each carry over 6,000 twenty-foot truck-like containers, requiring ports with depths of about 50 feet. Yet six of America’s ten largest container ports, which handle 80% of the US container traffic, have depths of less than that. They cannot handle the giant ships which increasingly are diverting to ports in Nova Scotia, Canada, and the Bahamas. Our harbors need to be dredged, and our terminals and intermodal connections to trucks and rails need to be modernized. Not only are American port jobs in jeopardy, but the increased cost of shipping US products overseas puts all our export-related jobs at risk.

The good news is that a Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund already exists, receiving fees from the users. The bad news is that, while it has collected about $733 million annually, it spent only about $500 million each year, having a balance of $1.3 billion. Instead of investing at the level the Trust Fund can support, much of the money is withheld to offset unrelated government spending. Further compounding the problem, the Supreme Court has ruled a portion of the fees unconstitutional. We must both unlock the fund and restructure it to pass constitutional muster so it can be used to modernize our maritime infrastructure.

Likewise, the products flowing through our inland waterways - our rivers, lakes, and canals - many on their way to be loaded onto ocean carriers for shipment overseas, suffer from both our outdated ports and harbors, and an antiquated system of locks and canals.

Barges move 800 million tons of cargo on these waterways each year, representing 15% of the nation’s freight for less than two percent of the nation’s total freight cost. Yet, over half of the 270 locks making navigation possible are antiquated, well beyond their 50-year design lives. A fifteen barge grain tow moves the equivalent of 870 trucks or 225 railroad cars, but because of outmoded locks, must be broken apart to pass in smaller clusters, raising the cost of shipping and slowing deliveries.

Without modern navigation systems - such as electronic charting and t