It was Christmas Eve at my sister's house, where her twin three-year-olds vied for attention by hanging on the treadmill bars and the grown-ups quizzed me about whether the country would go over the fiscal cliff.
"By the way," said my brother-in-law, "did you know the East Coast ports are about to go on strike?"
Actually yes, I did know. But I was so busy trying to ascertain the fallout of the fiscal cliff crisis that I barely paid attention. The rest of the country was similarly preoccupied.
That's unfortunate. Ports are an integral part of the U.S. economy, and they have the potential to grow exponentially over the next decade. The value of imports through U.S. ports was $1.16 trillion (that's trillion with a T) in 2011, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A recent report from Building America's Future projects that port volume could double by 2020 and quadruple on the West Coast.
Unfortunately, says the BAF report, the U.S. port system ranks 19th in the world in terms of port infrastructure quality. The Shanghai port in China now moves more container traffic a year by itself than the top eight U.S. ports combined. (Ports aren't the only part of the problem, by the way. The report projects predominant congestion at crucial points in the country's internal freight network by 2035.)
Cynically speaking, it's too bad that the more immediate crisis of a dockworker strike was temporarily averted. Policymakers and citizens these days appear immune to national challenges unless they are literally hours away from doom. Maybe being 19th in the world won't get our attention, but a mass shutdown of the East Coast and Gulf Coast ports would certainly wake us up.
What should ports of the future look like? What are the immediate problems now? Who really needs to be paying attention to ports, the public or just the relevant business and government stakeholders? Is unionization a barrier, a sideshow, or an asset to U.S. port development? How do other parts of the freight system in the country need to interact with ports and what is their role? Where are the weak spots in the system? Where are the strengths?