Expanding economic opportunity

Published 11:17 am Saturday, June 21, 2014

In 1904, the United States began construction on one of the biggest civil engineering undertakings in the modern world. Workers undertook a harrowing job to dredge and excavate a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that would significantly reduce shipping times, cutting out the journey around Cape Horn. The project was an amazing engineering feat that took a decade to complete. When it opened, the Panama Canal changed the way we view commerce around the world. It ushered in a new era of shipping, trade, and economic opportunity that stretched between continents and nations.

Once again we stand on the cusp of a new era of transportation advancement. Since it opened in 1914, the Panama Canal has served as a strategic link for global maritime trade, accommodating approximately five percent of the world’s total cargo volume each year and serving over 140 maritime trade routes to over 80 countries. Today, the expansion of the Panama Canal presents an important opportunity for American trade and the American economy.

The Panama Canal expansion will enable the canal to serve what are known as Post-Panamax ships – massive vessels known for carrying enormous amounts of cargo. The expansion is expected to boost significantly the amount of cargo moved through the canal and between hemispheres. It also represents a potential shift in global commerce as international trade flows. The expansion holds enormous economic potential for ports and localities that have the infrastructure to handle their size and cargo capacity. However, we as a nation have to be ready to accept the larger ships.

The Panama Canal expansion will increase demands on transportation networks, service, and operations. The highway and rail access and on-land distribution network needs to be prepared ahead-of time. Railroads and trucking companies can only deliver goods if adequate highway, bridges, tunnels, and rail infrastructure exists to handle the larger payloads. Retailers and small businesses can only succeed if they can acquire their goods economically and in a timely manner.

In Virginia, the Port of Virginia is one of the few deep-water ports able to accommodate such vessels; however, the maintenance and improvement of crane, rail, and trucking infrastructure remains critical for the Port to handle the increased volume of cargo the Post-Panamax ships carry. Ships will only come to the Port if the channel is deep enough and the Port can receive and process their cargo timely and efficiently. Ensuring that these transportation links are not only working, but growing, will give us tremendous economic opportunity.

Hard work always precedes opportunity and advancement. The Panama Canal expansion is no exception. We need to be more strategic and forward-thinking to take full advantage of economic opportunities such as this one. It is important to all involved – private industry, local officials, and small business owners – that we ensure our transportation, infrastructure, and logistics networks are prepared so they can reap the benefits of the expansion.

In order to facilitate this, I joined three of my colleagues, Congressman Rick Crawford (R-AK), Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV), and Congresswoman Janice Hahn (D-CA) to form the bipartisan Congressional Panama Canal Expansion Caucus. The goal of the Caucus is to assess the impact the expansion will have on U.S. ports and inland infrastructure. The Caucus will highlight steps that Congress needs to take to make sure our nation’s ports are prepared for a new era of commerce, and to ensure the United States remains a global leader in commerce and transportation.

The formation of the Caucus is another effort on my part to ensure we are ready for the expansion. Throughout my time in Congress, I’ve made it a priority to work with local elected officials, representatives from the Port of Virginia, and key industry stakeholders. In 2012, I hosted a Fourth District roundtable working session with Senator John Boozman (AR), who is a member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, to address the issue. The roundtable brought together experts in international shipping, trade, and transport to discuss how Virginia and the rest of the country can work together to prepare for the expansion. The new Panama Canal Expansion Caucus brings us to the next step in seizing this opportunity for economic advancement.

Maintaining strong transportation links for our nation is one of the keys to a vibrant, strong economy. The extent to which we benefit from opportunities like this one depends on how prepared we are to accept them.

Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives. For contact information, see http://randyforbes.house.gov.