Commentary: United States must reinvest in its ports and waterways


By Tracy Grondine

The Port of Oakland, which supports tens of thousands of jobs, relies on agricultural products for nearly half the value of exports moved through the port.
The Port of Oakland, which supports tens of thousands of jobs, relies on agricultural products for nearly half the value of exports moved through the port.

America’s ports and waterways are in significant need of updating. Most of the infrastructure is at least 50 years out of date and very few U.S. ports can fit the gargantuan, post-Panamax vessels that are being used to ship goods around the globe.


To learn firsthand how this lack of technology is affecting U.S. agriculture exports, American Farm Bureau Federation leaders recently visited ports in the West and Pacific Northwest. The group of leaders, who are part of the AFBF Trade Advisory Committee, got an up-close look at ports in Oakland, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.


U.S. agriculture heavily depends on trade. Last year, more than $141 billion in farm goods were exported. Yet, U.S. port and waterway infrastructure is decades behind international competitors due to a lack of funding. For example, only about half of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which was established to fund the operation and maintenance of ports, is currently being allocated toward port infrastructure. And Congress is just sitting on the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which would secure funding for America’s waterways.


Expanded capacity and access to markets on the West Coast is especially critical for U.S. farm products and local jobs. Take Washington, for example, the most trade-dependent state, where trade is responsible for 40 percent of all jobs. Agricultural products are Washington’s third-largest export. In Oregon, one in five jobs is dependent on trade of farm products, accounting for 10 percent of Oregon’s gross domestic product.


The Port of Oakland, the fifth-largest container port in the U.S, supports 73,000 jobs locally and 827,000 jobs across the country. Last year, nearly half of the value of exports leaving the Oakland port—approximately $6.74 billion—were agricultural products.


Comparing these U.S. ports to our international competitors, the Trade Advisory Committee leaders had an opportunity to tour the Port of Vancouver, B.C. Unlike the U.S., Canada continues to invest in its port infrastructure. The Vancouver port, for example, is currently undergoing a nearly $900 million infrastructure improvement program in three key trade areas, which will be completed in March.


The U.S. could clearly learn a thing or two from its international competitors when it comes to modernizing the means of moving our goods to global markets. As TAC Chair Steve Baccus said, “There are no trucks or trains to Asia. We are reliant on the sea, of which our ports are the conduit.”


Updating America’s waterways is also essential for agriculture to serve domestic markets. Passage of WRRDA is critical for farmers and other producers to continue to move food, timber, coal and other essential products throughout the country. America’s marine infrastructure ensures that our grocery shelves are stocked and our lights stay on.


Our ports and waterways make it possible for U.S. farmers to move their goods to market, whether they are sending Washington apples or New York yogurt to Taiwan or Tennessee.

Credit to the California Farm Bureau Federation for this article.