Ensuring global competitiveness from a port's perspective

APWA Board member John Okamoto provides Congress with local insight

Becky Wickstrom
Manager of Media Affairs
APWA Washington Office

Following a wave of recent news reports and dialogue on Capitol Hill about U.S. port security and operations, APWA Director-at-Large for Transportation John Okamoto held a briefing in Washington, D.C., for congressional staff in April, lending a first-hand perspective on global competitiveness, security challenges and how the federal government can help ensure port efficiency and security. Okamoto is Chief Administrative Officer for the Port of Seattle in Seattle, Wash. Last year, the Port of Seattle was the fastest growing container port in North America. It is one of only a few U.S. ports also operating an airport.

Contributions from seaports to the nation's economy are substantial—a staggering $948.7 billion in 2004. Though figures for 2005 are not yet available, it is estimated that most major U.S. ports experienced double-digit growth, with the value of goods to U.S. seaports increasing to more than a trillion dollars. Commerce at seaports nets the U.S. Treasury approximately $22 billion in taxes, fees and duties, but only about $5-7 billion is directed toward port-related purposes, including funding for the Coast Guard, Customs, border protection and dredging.

"Targeted federal investment in ports and port infrastructure can help our country to be more competitive, generate additional local, state and federal revenues, keep people working and bolster U.S. business," said Okamoto during the briefing.

According to Okamoto, the nation's ability to compete effectively in a global economy depends on sound port infrastructure. Other countries, including Canada and Mexico, are preparing themselves to compete strongly against U.S. ports. Canadians continue to invest in port infrastructure, especially on the west coast, which is the gateway for most Asian goods.

Though Okamoto acknowledged that "ink has barely dried" on the recently enacted SAFETEA-LU transportation law, he urged lawmakers to begin thinking about the next reauthorization of federal surface transportation programs because ports depend on road and rail infrastructure to distribute goods.

In April, APWA Board member John Okamoto met with congressional staff over lunch to discuss global competitiveness and security of U.S. ports. Okamoto urged Congress to increase funding for port infrastructure, including rail and road infrastructure which connects ports to their major markets.

"I would propose that Congress give serious thought to creating a strategic focus on using transportation to improve our global competitiveness," said Okamoto. "A system of thoroughfares to link major ports to their markets, both by rail and by road, is essential."

Okamoto also encouraged lawmakers to make secure seaports a higher priority—through additional funding, standardized screening processes, and support for agencies charged with port protection.

"Already much has been done on the airport side, with the expenditure of billions of dollars for explosive detection machines, screeners for passengers and bags, and the reconfiguration and 'hardening' of airport facilities so they can better address homeland security challenges," he said. "Seaport security must also be improved. One of the top goals for seaports nationwide is to have a credible and standardized access control system in place so we know exactly who is on our facilities at any given time. Seaports universally are supportive of a better system."

APWA Congressional Briefings are one part of an awareness campaign to provide congressional staff with information about the role and needs of public works and infrastructure in local communities. APWA member experts brief staff members about issues ranging from transportation funding to emergency preparedness and clean water.

Becky Wickstrom can be reached at (202) 218-6736 or bwickstrom@apwa.net.