Commissioner McCarthy testifies on US port and freight infrastructure

Port of Tacoma Commissioner John McCarthyJohn McCarthy, Port of Tacoma commission president and co-chair of The Northwest Seaport Alliance, provided the following testimony Tuesday to the Transportation and Safety Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
The NWSA also submitted a written statement. McCarthy’s participation in the hearing came at the request of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and the subcommittee.

Good morning, Chairwoman Fischer, Ranking Member Duckworth, Ranking Member Cantwell, and members of the subcommittee. Thank you for the invitation to be here today.

The Northwest Seaport Alliance is the fourth largest container gateway in North America, created to manage the joint marine cargo facilities of the ports of Tacoma and Seattle.

Our cargo activity employs over 58,000 people. But our focus is much bigger, with hundreds of thousands of jobs across rural and urban areas that depend on our facilities. The alliance does not view the world through an urban or rural lens because our success is embedded in both.

More than a quarter of U.S. GDP is a result of cargo that moves through seaports. Truly, seaports serve the entire nation, not just the communities where they are located.

Our port is a great example of this. Nearly 60% of our imports move beyond the region and our exports originate from all 50 states. As the number-two U.S. agricultural port, we are an essential partner to our nation’s farmers.

As it relates to waterborne trade, for example:

From Nebraska, 8% of the state’s containerized exports, and 26% of its containerized imports pass through the NWSA.

And from Illinois, we handle at least 10% of each of that state’s top 10 containerized imports. We are also an important gateway for Illinois’ containerized export products, including 12% of its soybeans and 23% of its cereals.

Beyond these examples, the alliance handles about 90% of containerized exports from Montana, half of the container exports from Oregon and Idaho, and at least 20% from Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Iowa.

All these rural, trade-dependent commodities need efficient and reliable infrastructure to move goods to market.

Yet, America’s port infrastructure is OK. Just OK. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives us a low grade, as mentioned by Sen. Duckworth. Rapid advancements in freight are driving ports to make significant changes. For example, a tripling of the container capacity of ships in the last decade requires billions of dollars in new investment.

And improving our port system requires that we also focus outside seaport gates across the U.S. freight networks. Bottlenecks and the cost of fixing them is often beyond the means of the communities where projects are located.

I greatly appreciate the subcommittee’s efforts to increase understanding among policymakers and the public because I do not think our nation has found the right approach to supporting its ports and moving us beyond a low grade.

Before I close, I would like to offer an example from the Northwest.

NWSA’s main competitors are the Canadian ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert. We are struggling to compete because the government of Canada has made the success of these ports a national priority and is providing substantial financial support to them.

In the past two years, Canada awarded $384 million to just these two ports, which is more than 75% of the two-year total for U.S. Department of Transportation’s Port Infrastructure Development Program.

Canada is also investing in its freight corridors all the way into the U.S. heartland. This investment has resulted in a 15% reduction in our market share in recent years, causing job losses and fewer carrier calls that U.S. exporters depend on.

We are committed to maintaining a growing, competitive gateway through investments in our port and connecting freight infrastructure. And we are leveraging hundreds of millions of dollars in private sector funds to remain a premier gateway. Yet, limited funding is a barrier to keeping pace with Canada and unfortunately, we have had little success securing federal funding for our projects. The success of Canadian initiatives to enhance its freight network represents a successful partnership between its ports and the Canadian government.

In closing, I would respectfully recommend the subcommittee support increased funding for:

  • The Port Intermodal Improvement Program.
  • Freight formula funds.
  • INFRA and the elimination of the multimodal funding cap.

Thank you once again for the opportunity to share my thoughts about the importance of DOT programs and the interdependence of urban and rural areas as it relates to freight mobility and goods movement.

I would be happy to answer any questions that you might have.

Watch the hearing.