In National Focus On Infrastructure Needs, Great Lakes Ports Say They're Overlooked

A self-unloading coal ship at a waterside dock. [Gerald Bernard / Shutterstock]
A self-unloading coal ship at a waterside dock. [Gerald Bernard / Shutterstock]
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Managers of the Port of Cleveland and other ports around the Great Lakes say they’re being overlooked in the national conversation about America’s crumbling infrastructure. 

On the heels of the nation’s seventh annual Infrastructure Week, the Port of Cleveland hosted a May 20 roundtable with port officials, maritime industry leaders and representatives of several Northeast Ohio Congressional members to talk about their needs. Port officials say it’s partly a problem of perception.  

"When people think about ports, they’re thinking too small," said Clayton Harris III, the executive director for the Illinois International Port District at the Port of Chicago. "I have people close their eyes and picture a port. Probably what you see is water and containers. And if that’s all you saw, you totally missed the boat. We deal with ships, barges, railroads, everything."

Ports are the nexus of many types of transportation. They’re the place where ships and barges meet trucks and trains, where water meets rail and road, and Harris said they should be a priority.

"All transportation, all transportation, comes through a port," he said. "So the infrastructure needs of ports should be addressed first and foremost."

The American Association of Port Authorities, which co-sponsored the roundtable, estimates about 2 billion tons of goods flow through the nation’s port systems each year. Of those shipments, 1 billion tons is international, but the other 1 billion is domestic, with most of that tonnage passing through ports on the Great Lakes.

"We’re not shipping fidget spinners and shoes from China," said Paul LaMarre III, director of the Port of Monroe, the only port Michigan has on Lake Erie. "We are handling the raw materials that are feeding a continually prosperous nation.  The iron ore that’s in your car, the coal that’s keeping your lights on, the grain on your kitchen table, the stone that’s in your driveway."

LaMarre and others say they need more public investment if Great Lakes ports are to stay relevant. But historically, there hasn’t been any regular infrastructure appropriations from Congress or state legislatures. U.S. Transportation Department infrastructure spending is dedicated to highways, mass transit and freight rail operations. William Scriber, the executive director of the Lake Ontario port of Oswego, in New York, says the results of those priorities are apparent.

"I have a brand new road that comes up to the port. I have two new bridges the state has built on roads coming to my port. Yet, I come to my port and I have infrastructure that is crumbling," Scriber said.

That includes a 100-year-old dock Scriber says was damaged by historic flooding in 2017

The president and CEO of the Port of Cleveland, Will Friedman, told the panel one of his eight berths failed earlier this year.

"After 60 years of use and having loads on it, it just gave way towards the bottom," he told ideastream between sessions. "Looks like rust, looks like corrosion toward the bottom, it’s steel. It doesn’t have the structural integrity required, so we had to take it out of commission and we’re gonna have to rebuild it."

Friedman estimates it will cost $7 million to $8 million dollars, a heavy lift for a port with an annual capital improvement budget of $10 million.

To fix or improve their facilities, port officials must either finance the projects themselves — the Port of Cleveland, for instance, has the power to issue bonds — or they must vie for discretionary federal grants. This pits the Great Lakes’ smaller ports against the big ones along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts, Scriber says, and against more voter-friendly local projects like Cleveland’s Opportunity Corridor and Akron’s street improvement project downtown.

"It’s kinda like 'The Hunger Games'," Scriber quipped. "Only those who can last the longest are going to get the money".

Of the 83 TIGER grants awarded by USDOT between 2010 and 2017 to the eight states bordering the Great Lakes, only two went to port projects: one to the Port of Oswego and one to the Minnesota Port of Duluth-Superior. Both were awarded in 2013.  

There’s been a shift, however, and those in the maritime industry hope it’s a long-term one. This fiscal year, for the first time, Congress set aside $293 million dollars just for ports.

"Two hundred and ninety-three million dollars, you know, in the big scheme of things, isn’t a giant amount of money," said Aaron Ellis, public affairs director for the American Association of Port Authorities, "But it’s the first time that we’ve ever got a dedicated fund, just for ports, through the Department of Transportation." Ellis said they’re lobbying for more than double that for the 2020 budget. 

There are signs of change at the state level, too. Current versions of Ohio’s biennium budget in both the House and Senate create a $20 million Maritime Assistance Fund. Port of Cleveland's Friedman says it’s tiny compared to the $7.9 billion the General Assembly gave ODOT. But he hopes it means Ohio lawmakers are waking up to the economic potential of its ports.

Friedman recently went to Columbus to testify before the Ohio Senate Finance Committee in favor of the Maritime Fund and told ideastream his comments seemed well–received. Meanwhile, that rotted-out dock will remain out of service until Friedman can find the money to repair it.

"I see a correlation between economic decline in the Midwest and the Great Lakes states and the fact that we never capitalized on the fourth coast," Friedman told the group. "I mean, you go to Atlanta, Savannah, and it’s the top priority, public policy, statewide, to pour money into the Port of Savannah and in Hartsfield-Atlanta Airport, too, both transportation facilities. We don’t have that kind of thinking in the Great lakes. And we’d better get it."

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