At the National Defense Transportation Association's 62nd Annual Forum and Exposition in September, Lt. Gen. Bobby Dail, director of the Defense Logistics Agency, stood up at the podium and asserted, "We are a maritime nation."
Last time we checked, the flagship of our nation was still Air Force One, and it's a 747 aircraft, not a boat. But the oceans are an integral part of our strategic environment, which is why the National Defense Transportation Association is devoting attention to the subject.
In his keynote address, Doug Tilden, chairman of the Ports America Group, the nation's largest terminal operator, warned that ports are shaping up to be a major chokepoint in the next decade. Based on North American maritime annual container volume across the top 10 gateway ports, Ports America predicts that demand will exceed available capacity at most, if not all, of those ports.
Consider the Long Beach/Los Angeles gateway. In 2004, the port handled a little over 13,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units, the standard measure for intermodal shipping containers). By 2020, Ports America projects, volume could swell to almost 60,000 TEUs. But Long Beach has not been able to add capacity for five years and still hasn't cracked the code for securing requisite approvals from the regulatory authorities.
The capacity problem is exacerbated by the relative inefficiency of American port operations. At Los Angeles/Long Beach, the container throughput per acre of land each year is around 6,500 TEUs. At Shanghai, by contrast, the throughput per acre is over 18,000 TEUs.
According to Tilden, it's time to attack the infrastructure issues. We have to find common ground with environmental constituencies so additional port capacity can be brought online. We must implement new technologies to improve throughput and better utilize the available footprint. And we cannot fail to seamlessly integrate security initiatives into port operations, because we need more efficient, not less efficient, ports.
The reality is that a return to 6 percent GDP growth will require 3.2 million TEUs' worth of new capacity annually. That's the equivalent of adding a Port of Houston and a Port of Charleston—both top 10 gateway ports—each and every year. It may not be glamorous, but maritime transport is an essential part of our nation's economy—and it's something we can't afford to ignore.