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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.

Ports serve as the gateway through which 99% of America’s overseas trade passes through and were responsible for $4.6 trillion in economic activity in 2014—roughly 26% of the nation’s economy—making them essential to U.S. competitiveness. Nearly $1.75 trillion worth of cargo moved through seaports in 2013. The top 10 U.S. ports accounted for 78% of U.S. foreign waterborne trade in 2015. The movement of goods through ports supports 23.1 million jobs, and provides $321.1 billion in tax revenue to federal, state, and local governments.

Inside a port’s gates, cranes load containers on and off ships, cooled warehouses store perishable items, and an operations center ensures efficient transport. By maintaining a port’s facilities, its lifespan can be greatly extended. There are ports, such as the Ports of Virginia, with facilities built during World War I that are still in use after extensive modernization. Operating equipment must be frequently upgraded due to usage and technical advancement, but most other aspects of ports have long service lives. However, major U.S. ports are experiencing greater change due to larger vessels, requiring the ports to adjust equipment, berth depths, terminal layout, and cargo handling operations on a more frequent basis than in the past.

Ports are part of the greater freight network, with roadways and rail lines playing an important role in ports’ success. The freight network is only as strong as its weakest link and congestion on these landside connections hinders productivity for ports. In a survey of ports, a third indicated that this congestion over the past 10 years caused port productivity to decrease by 25% or more. To improve freight movement, the federal Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act requires states to have state freight plans.

Meanwhile, on the water side, larger ships need deeper navigation channels—typically 45 feet deep or more—to be able to access a port. The Panama Canal Expansion allows ships that can carry 13,000 TEU (twenty foot equivalent units) to reach East Coast ports, however only a few of the nation’s existing ports are currently able to accommodate ships this large. As ships continue to grow, the majority of existing port infrastructure will not be able to accommodate these larger vessels. Ports need to add cranes to ensure they can reach the cargo on wider ships, increase the size of the container yard to hold cargo, and supply sufficient power to pull ships into port.

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