The United States’ 926 ports are essential to the nation’s competitiveness, serving as the gateway through which 99% of overseas trade passes. Ports are responsible for $4.6 trillion in economic activity — roughly 26% of the U.S. economy. As ships get bigger, congestion at landside connections to other components of the freight network increasingly hinders ports’ productivity. Similarly, on the water side, larger ships require deeper navigation channels, which only a few U.S. ports currently have. To remain competitive globally and with one another, ports have been investing in expansion, modernization, and repair.
The first recorded international commerce in the New World was in 1565 when English soldiers traded guns and ammunition to the French for food in what we now know as Jacksonville, Florida. From this auspicious beginning, America’s coastal settlements grew and with them, its ports. Today, the United States has more than 926 coastal, Great Lakes, and inland harbors. U.S. ports and terminals handled more than 82,000 vessels in 2015.
Despite the national significance of ports, most port-related investments are limited to state or local appropriations. If there are multiple ports within a state, they often compete for the same funding resources if any funding programs exist at all. For example, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas are home to many local ports competing for a limited amount of available state project funding.
Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and other crises at seaports result in billions of dollars in damage and the loss of long-term economic activity. As a result, ports face a balancing act of efficiently moving goods while also maintaining secure facilities. Many different agencies and groups, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Coast Guard, and Transportation Security Administration (TSA), are responsible for keeping ports secure. As an entry point for goods from other countries, especially foodstuffs, containers are screened by TSA upon arrival to a port. A division within DHS is developing the Port Security Risk and Resource Management System (PortSec) to assess and reduce risks to ports.