President Obama announced Thursday that his administration will expedite approval for a series of projects intended to expand and modernize five major U.S. ports.
The move comes at a time when many governors and state leaders across the country -- especially on the East and Gulf coasts -- have called on the administration to speed up regulatory approval of the projects, arguing that they're integral to the state and local economies and are key to keeping the U.S. competitive in international trade.
The ports slated for speedier timelines are in Charleston, S.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Miami; Savannah, Ga.; and the Port of New York and New Jersey.
The issue has become increasingly critical in recent years, as Panama makes progress on an expansion of its canal that will vastly increase the size of ships that can travel through its waters. Larger "Post-Panamax" ships will be able to carry more than twice as much cargo as they did before.
That, in turn, has caused ports on the East and Gulf coast to pursue projects to deepen their own harbors, since the larger ships would scrape the bottom of the floor without improvements. Generally, ports on the West Coast are naturally deeper and don't face this problem. The situation was featured in this month's issue of Governing.
In March, the president ordered federal agencies to start identifying infrastructure projects of national and regional significance to be considered for aggressive permitting schedules. A total of 43 projects will eventually get that treatment, but these are the first.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that a feasibility study for its projects in Charleston -- initially launched in June 2011 -- would be sped up. The administration's recent announcement puts it on an even shorter timeline.
The administration also announced it's forming a task force to develop a federal strategy to determine the economic return on investments it might make to various ports. State leaders and port officials have bemoaned the fact that the federal government currently lacks a comprehensive ports strategy.
Transportation stakeholders and advocates praised the administration's announcement. "We applaud the administration’s new effort because it will have a significant impact on our nation’s economic prosperity and global competitiveness," said Marcia Hale, president of Building America's Future, in a statement.