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Thursday, July 31 2014 @ 05:26 AM EDT

Nation's ports get ready for boost from Panama Canal

Canal ExpansionBy Richard Thompson, The Times-Picayune - Nearly $14 billion is expected to be spent maintaining and upgrading the nation's ports and inland waterways in the next eight years, but that won't be enough to take full advantage of the soon-to-be-completed widening of the Panama Canal, according to a report released Thursday by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Port officials and others in the shipping industry hope the multibillion dollar project will flood large, coastal ports with containers from ships that are now too large to fit through the waterway, and many have scrambled to raise money for infrastructure improvements.

Here in New Orleans, port president and chief executive Gary LaGrange has said that he expects his facilities to see an "incremental growth" from its two new container cranes, and has looked for new public-private partnerships to help raise capital in anticipation of the project. But between now and 2020, that $14 billion that's slated for investment needs to be closer to $30 billion, according to the report. Otherwise, it predicts bad times ahead for consumers, contending that the price of goods will rise, job growth in the port sector will fall and the U.S. will become less competitive in the global market.

The report is part of the society's Failure to Act report, which examines the economic consequences if current investment trends in infrastructure continue.

With the scheduled widening of the Panama Canal expected to be completed by 2015, the average size of container ships is expected to increase, which will require infrastructure upgrades at major U.S. ports and dredging harbors and channels to authorized depths.

The report stresses the role that the ports play in the U.S. economy, estimating that the facilities support about $270 billion in annual U.S. exports and 738,000 jobs.

In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Andy Herrmann, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said making up the investment gap would help maintain "a critical link to make international commerce possible," and suggested that the nation's cargo facilities would benefit from a unified investment policy on infrastructure improvements.

He also suggested that money could come from the multibillion-dollar Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, a decades-old cache created by Congress to pay for maintenance work at U.S. ports and harbors.

Jerry Bridges, chairman of the American Association of Ports Authorities and executive director of the Virginia Port Authority, said commerce at the ports supports the jobs of more than 13.3 million U.S. workers.

"Those are huge numbers, and we need to prepare," Bridges said. "This is the critical time for port planning and forethought, to make sure that we're compeititive in the world going forward."

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