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Invest in Port Infrastructure to Invest in Our Economy

Port infrastructure in the New York Harbor. Photo by David Henry.

Ports—when you hear this word, what comes to mind? Our guess is you’re thinking ‘Ships?’ or maybe ‘Cranes that look like giraffe skeletons, but made industrial?’. You may not be thinking about how important ports are to keeping our economy running.

But ports and maritime infrastructure form the backbone of the U.S. economy, keeping the flow of goods moving to meet our everyday needs. The nation’s 328 coastal and inland ports support almost 31 million jobs and 26% of the GDP, according to 2018 statistics from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The pandemic highlighted just how much this infrastructure impacts our lives, as the delivery of everything from cars to bananas to clothes to medicine to food to computers was affected by supply chain strain at the ports.

In recent years, ports have adopted a new role as vital links in the emerging offshore wind industry. As more developers win offshore lease areas and move into staging and constructing wind farms, our outdated port infrastructure—and lack of available funding for capital upgrades—create major barriers to accommodating industry supply chains and project development. Most of the nation’s ports are at least a century old, and owners struggle to modernize existing infrastructure in order to keep pace with and accommodate today’s larger vessels. Decades of federal, state, and local disinvestment have likewise delayed repairs and maintenance, compounding the deterioration. Indeed, despite ports’ importance, a $12 billion funding gap existed (as of 2018) to fix waterside infrastructure over the next decade, with billions more needed for landside upgrades.

Ports will need to modernize to accommodate the larger vessels that transport major turbine components to offshore lease areas, as well as the larger cranes needed for component assembly and placement of ships. In short: crumbling wharf infrastructure will not only impede business as usual, but delay and hinder the offshore wind industry’s ability to deliver clean energy to millions.

In promising news, the Biden Administration’s 2021 passage of the Infrastructure and Jobs Act will invest $17 billion in port infrastructure. Additionally, the US Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration released a funding opportunity in February 2023 that makes over $662 million of federal funding available for port infrastructure modernization.

While these injections of funding will be helpful, they are not enough. According to the ASCE’s 2021 Infrastructure Failure to Act Report, the projected gap between port infrastructure needs and available investment will reach more than $2.6 trillion by 2029 and more than $5.6 trillion by 2039. The report also states that an increased investment of $281 billion a year would eliminate the potential economic burden caused by port degradation, including job and GDP loss, which could exceed $10.3 trillion by 2039. This level of investment will be difficult to attain without additional interventions like state funding programs, incentivized private sector investment, and government prioritization of port infrastructure spending across federal, state, and local levels.

These ports and their accompanying maritime infrastructure have long been a staple of America’s economy. To leverage further opportunities for economic development with the advent of offshore wind in the US, ports need the appropriate federal funding to modernize and continue to grow our jobs and GDP.

Want to learn more about ports, offshore wind, and all things maritime?

The Karp Strategies team has a passion for and expertise about ports after our years of experience working on ports and with port authorities from New Jersey to Massachusetts to Maine. After her urban planning degree, CEO and Managing Principal Rebecca Karp worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) both in policy and operational roles. Mike Deveney, our Data Compliance and Contract Administrator, joined Karp Strategies in 2021 after over thirty years of experience in operations, maintenance, security, and administration with PANYNJ.

We’ll be talking about exactly these issues and experiences at the Waterfront Alliance’s Waterfront Conference on May 8 in New York City! Join Rebecca, Maki Onodera (Jacobs), Stephen Famularo (WSP), and Patricia Gaynor (MARAD) as they speak on the panel, “Addressing Decades of Deterioration: Deferred Wharf and Pier Maintenance.” The discussion will explore how the public and private sectors must rise to the challenge of revitalizing our port infrastructure to support the regional economy.

Register for the Waterfront Conference below to attend this panel or others on waterfronts and climate resilience.

Register here:


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