U.S. ports and terminal operators hope a last-ditch effort on Capitol Hill will send emergency funding their way as lawmakers put the final touches on the next COVID-19 relief package.
Such relief has so far eluded the maritime sector, which has been frustrated watching other transportation modes such as public transit and the airlines get billions of dollars from the previous two COVID-19 relief bills signed during the Trump administration.
“The port industry has yet to receive any relief in funding with regard to this COVID crisis,” testified Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, California, before a House Transportation & Infrastructure subcommittee Tuesday.
“So if I could leave one thing with this subcommittee, we just want to have a percentile of relief that is so important.”
Negotiations on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package are ongoing, with committees within the U.S. House of Representatives expected to begin voting on the bill on Wednesday. A draft version of the proposal includes $30 billion for transit agencies, $14 billion for passenger airlines, $8 billion for airports and $1.5 billion for Amtrak, according to Reuters.
Cordero, who was at the hearing representing the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) as its chairman, asked lawmakers to consider funding the maritime sector through the Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief Program (MTSERA), created as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020. It authorizes the U.S. Maritime Administration to award grants due to emergencies, including the current pandemic.
Eligible recipients include vessel owners and operators, shipyards, and ports. Operating costs for which the relief funds can be used include cleaning, sanitization, personal protective equipment, fuel, debt payments, workforce retention and infrastructure repair.
“Funding MTSERA at $3.5 billion or more will begin to enable this industry to recover,” testified Lauren Brand, president of the National Association of Waterfront Employers, which represents marine terminal operators.
“Each of our members is a key leader in the movement of freight. They handle containers filled with consumer goods and manufacturing parts, bulk products needed to build roads, agriculture shipped overseas to feed other nations, export cars and heavy equipment that is made in the U.S., petroleum products needed to propel trucks, trains, planes and automobiles, and, yes, they handle thousands and thousands of boxes of PPE and equipment needed to fight COVID.”
Brand asserted that the shift by consumers from buying services to buying goods — a direct result of COVID-19 — has pushed the container supply chain to its limits. This has led to loaded containers dwelling on marine terminals for eight days in a system designed to store them for half that time. Containers normally stacked three-high are now having to stack five-high.
“A trucker is dispatched to pick up your container, which is now probably at the bottom of that stack, requiring the stevedore to move four other containers to retrieve your load,” she said. “These added container moves degrade terminal efficiency while vastly increasing operating costs … and the truck driver has been kept waiting.”