Secure ports vital to our economy

While our nation’s economy is growing and the unemployment rate fell from 7.9 percent in January to 7.7 percent in February, for millions of Americans still out of work, it is not growing nearly fast enough. Washington must do more to create jobs and fire up the engines of our economy. 

Yet one of the most dynamic and powerful engines of economic opportunity in the country has also been one of the most overlooked. 

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It is hard to ignore the importance of strong ports when you live near one like me. But the impact of our ports reaches far beyond harbor communities, into the foundation of our economy and our national security.  

When ports are strong, our country is strong. When a port isn’t working, the reverberations ripple through the livelihoods of millions of Americans.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach alone generate commerce that supports 4.7 million jobs across the country. When a labor dispute shut down the West Coast ports for 10 days in 2002, the economy was drained of nearly two billion dollars each day and the global supply chain was also threatened by that closure. 

A strong port gives businesses the confidence to nimbly respond to the marketplace. When businesses know they can get their products when they need them, they can carry less inventory that has to be stored and insured.  They can be more agile, and more successful. 

Strong ports incubate new technologies and harness the innovation and entrepreneurship of their communities. They fuel the success of local small businesses by connecting them with growing new markets across the oceans. 

Our ports are not just the first line of defense against those hoping to smuggle weapons into the United States — they are an attractive target themselves. The importance of well-functioning ports to our economic health has not eluded the terrorists, nor will Mother Nature care that we rely on functioning ports when planning the next hurricane or earthquake.

That is why strong ports are also secure ports, equipped to swiftly and efficiently screen cargo and prepared to rebound from any attack or natural disaster. 

And strong ports are environmental leaders, finding innovative solutions that clean our air and create good jobs in the same stroke. We no longer have to choose between good jobs and clean air — we can have both. 

We know these things are true because we have seen the success of the ports in our backyard. As someone who worked in partnership with the ports as a Los Angeles city councilwoman for more than a decade, I can say that this success does not come without focus and effort. But today, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are global leaders in efficiency, security and clean-technology development. 

Their strength doesn’t just drive our regional economy — they set an example for the rest of the country. Their work proves that ports can be more than mere gateways, they can be engines.

We need to seize this opportunity. According to a recent study by the American Society of Civil Engineers, unless we get serious about our ports and waterways soon, we stand to lose $700 billion in national GDP by 2020. There could be as many as 738,000 fewer jobs. 

So when I came to Congress in July 2011, I was troubled to learn that not enough attention was being paid to our nation’s ports. They weren’t part of the national conversation as it related to our economy, jobs and security. That is why I started the bipartisan Congressional Ports Caucus with my friend Republican Rep. Ted Poe of Texas. 

Today, the Ports Caucus is 81 members strong, including congressmen and congresswomen of both parties, many of whom do not even have a port in their district. And in July, the Obama administration announced a new White House Task Force on Ports, which will start developing a coordinated national strategy for ports issues. 

Trade volume for marine ports is expected to double by 2021, and double again shortly after 2030. Now is the time to start making smart investments to modernize and secure our ports. Now is when we must embrace the opportunities ports represent and confront their challenges. 

That means putting our money where our mouth is. For years, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund has built to a multibillion-dollar surplus — even as so many ports across the nation have suffered from lack of investment. Common sense says there is a better way to manage and spend the trust fund, but we have not yet done what we need to fix it. As a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and co-founder of the Ports Caucus, I will continue to work my colleagues in Congress to improve our utilization of these vital funds. 

There is a lot of work left to be done, and we have only just embarked on the way to doing it. But as our ports hum with the commerce and industry of a nation, Washington is starting to hum along, too. 

Hahn is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and co-chairwoman of the Congressional Ports Caucus.