Washington Zeroes in on Port Performance

Kurt Nagle talks about how AAPA is helping ports tell their stories in the media and to Congress

By Meredith Martino

P.T. Barnum famously said “all publicity is good publicity,” but anyone answering questions before a Congressional oversight panel might wonder if Mr. Barnum had it right. When 2015 began, port congestion and the protracted labor/management negotiations on the West Coast were in the news quite a bit. Washington, D.C., picked up the issue of port productivity, with the subject becoming the focus of both Congressional hearings and legislation, as well as a series of listening sessions and an ensuing report by the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC). AAPA President and CEO Kurt Nagle talks about what this attention has meant for the U.S. port industry.

When port congestion started appearing in the press in late 2014 and early 2015, did you feel like the media covering the issue had enough information about port operations and the value of ports to the nation’s economy to put the news into the appropriate context?

Kurt: All in all, we were pleased with how much the media knows about ports. We continue, however, to education and communicate to those reporters and writers who don’t understand ports. As the collective and unified voice for ports, AAPA, along with its members, has spent a great deal of time on informing the media, policy makers and influencers on the vital importance of ports to our nation’s economy, jobs and international competitiveness. Our overarching theme is “Seaports Deliver Prosperity.” One aspect of this initiative has been to conduct port tours and briefings for members of the media and key influencer groups, giving folks an opportunity to grasp the scale and challenges in moving the volume of goods necessary to keep trade flowing. A number of the media reporting on congestion and productivity issues participated in one or more of these port visits, and that helped enhance their understanding and reporting.

The FMC report really tries to present the big picture of port productivity and rolled up the results of a nationwide listening tour among ports and port industry stakeholders. How did AAPA help inform that project?

Kurt: We have built a strong working relationship with the Federal Maritime Commission over the past several years. It has continued to grow under FMC Chairman Mario Cordero’s leadership. At Chairman Cordero’s request, AAPA has chaired several FMC roundtable discussions over the past few years, highlighting ports’ roles as environmental stewards. Many of AAPA’s members participated in the FMC forums on productivity and congestion, helping to inform the discussions, range of challenges and lessons learned.

FMC efforts were really the beginning of a drumbeat that has gotten quite loud at times this year. How did AAPA contribute to the larger discussion happening about port productivity and congestion?

Kurt: AAPA was proactive during the prolonged labor negotiations on the West Coast, urging the Obama Administration to become engaged to help the parties reach a fair agreement as quickly as possible. We emphasized that the U.S. economy and supply chain could not afford any disruption of its ports system. As I noted earlier, our overall awareness efforts also helped inform the discussions. AAPA Chairwoman of the Board Kristin Decas, from Port Hueneme, and AAPA staff partnered with others in May during Infrastructure Week to educate Members of Congress on this and other key port-related issues. We also gathered data from our members and published a “State of Freight” report that provides information on the factors and impacts of congestion on landside connections to ports, and infrastructure investment needs.

When the Senate started proposing ideas to address future port congestion, how did AAPA’s efforts influence the dialogue and the legislative process?

Kurt: AAPA has been actively engaged with the Senate Commerce Committee and other committees to ensure that freight transportation policy and funding are key components of surface transportation reauthorization. Our “State of Freight” report has been a significant driver of the freight portions of this legislation. When port performance legislation was introduced, we agreed with the goal of avoiding future disruptions in the flow of commerce through America’s ports and worked with the committee to inform the process, which led to the legislation being amended to better reflect industry conditions and meet the objectives of the bill.

What has been the greatest challenge of having this much attention from Congress on the topic of port productivity?

Kurt: Everyone can agree we must optimize the efficiency of the supply chain, including moving goods into and out of ports. Port authorities are working with their partners, including shippers, labor, terminal operators and other stakeholders toward supply chain optimization. With each port, and each facility within a port, being unique, the factors relating to productivity and performance vary. As it relates to container movements, a whole host of factors, such as larger vessels, carrier alliances, chassis, etc., influence performance. If Congress decides to pass port performance legislation, the focus should be on optimizing the intermodal freight network.

I’m sure having the focus of lawmakers presents opportunities for the association, too. How is AAPA capitalizing on this attention for the benefit of its members?

Kurt: Congressional attention has heightened the awareness of just how important ports and freight transportation are to American workers, manufacturers, exporters and the consumer. Add to that the more than $320 billion in tax revenues generated by seaport activity, it presents a strong case for investing in the proper maintenance and improvements to seaport-related infrastructure. A key part of improving port performance is often the condition of the infrastructure and the need for infrastructure investments. Our “State of Freight” report found that a third of U.S. ports have seen a 25 percent or more reduction in productivity in the last 10 years due to increased congestion on their landside connections. AAPA is influencing the debate on landside and waterside infrastructure investment needs, the benefits of trade promotion policies and other industry priorities.

Congress may or may not address this issue in its long-term surface transportation bill. With or without legislative action this year, will this issue “go away” anytime soon?

Kurt: Ports are more top of mind now than ever before. Given the importance of seaports to the U.S. economy, jobs, our global competitiveness and tax revenues, this increased attention can help drive policy and funding to nurture these economic engines. AAPA will continue to pound the drum and further elevate the awareness of port priorities among key influencers toward assuring the efficient flow of trade.