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Dredging Coastal Ports: An Assessment of the Issues (1985)

Chapter: 1. Executive Summary

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Suggested Citation:"1. Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1985. Dredging Coastal Ports: An Assessment of the Issues. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/608.
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Page 1
Suggested Citation:"1. Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1985. Dredging Coastal Ports: An Assessment of the Issues. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/608.
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Page 2
Suggested Citation:"1. Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1985. Dredging Coastal Ports: An Assessment of the Issues. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/608.
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Page 3

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1 Executive Summary The question whether ports in the United States are adequate to serve the nation's present and future needs became a major public concern in the early 1980s. Attention focused on port adequacy when, as a result of the Iranian Revolution, world demand for U.S. coal exploded. During 1980, news media in the United States were full of reports that large numbers of colliers were waiting for weeks and sometimes months to gain access to U.S. coal-loading facilities. During this same period, a number of studies concluded that the United States had the opportunity to become a major supplier of a large new world market for steam coal. To gain and secure that market, it was repeatedly argued, the United States would need to be able to handle the most efficient dry-bulk carriers, and such carriers require greater water depths than those available at U.S. coal ports. The events of the early 1980s brought to Public attention an issue that had long been developing. me ^ _ _ ~ ^ ~ _ ~ ~ ^ · - was the growing interdependence of the U.S. and the world economies. During the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. economy moved from being essentially self-contained to becoming the largest component of a world economy. Increasingly, U.S. economic well-being was seen as being dependent on the nation's capacity to compete in a world economy. Particularly for high-volume, low-cost commodities such as coal, efficient low-cost transportation was viewed as an essential ingredient to American competitiveness. For such commodities. loran bulk carriers were believed to offer major economies of scale. Many of those involved in ocean transportation noted that the United States would only be able to enjoy these economies of scale if it developed substantially deeper ports, ports capable of handling large deep-draft vessels. Second, although the seeming advantages and trends to larger vessels in the world fleet were evident, the 1970s saw little in the way of a response to these perceived needs for deeper U.S. ports. The inability of the nation to respond to the apparent need for deeper ports was the result of an unraveling of the social contract that had been in place for over 150 years between the federal government and the ports concerning how both maintenance and new construction dredging would be funded, managed, and regulated. By the 1980s, then, -~-~e ~ Abut Frau two ~ . ~ ~ [ 1 . _ ,

2 24 ports had proposals for improvement dredging projects and no significant new construction dredging had occurred for a decade. This report is an investigation of the major issues associated with port dredging. Specifically, it investigates three general questions: (1) Is additional port construction and maintenance dredging necessary now or over the next two decades? (2) What impediments and barriers militate against carrying out additional dredging if it is needed? (3) What alternatives offer promise of mitigating or effectively responding to those impediments in order that any needed dredging can be carried out? Assessing the nation's dredging needs requires setting them in a more general context. It is necessary to seek an understanding of the role of ports in the broader U.S. and world economy and ocean transportation system. Further, it requires comparing the dredging of existing ports with a variety of alternatives that have been proposed for meeting the nation's transportation needs. Proponents and opponents of port dredging and the alternatives to dredging range across a broad spectrum. Some contend that immediate dredging of existing ports is a necessity while others argue that U.S. ports are adequate for the foreseeable future or that there are more cost- effective ways than dredging to meet the nation's need to handle large vessels. The central conclusion of this report is that the nation needs additional capacity to handle large vessels and that such a capacity should exist on each of the nation's coasts. It is important to emphasize two reasons for this conclusion. First, the United States faces great uncertainty with regard to the size and character of the future world economy, the nature of future oceanborne transportation into and out of U.S. ports, and the future mix of commodities that the nation will export and import. Further, the character of U.S. exports and imports, particularly exports of such bulk commodities as coal and agricultural products, is likely to fluctuate greatly from year to year. Most of the analyses and arguments used by proponents and opponents of additional port capacity to handle large ships start from assumptions about the future size and character of U.S. trade and transport. All these assumptions must be viewed as highly uncertain. Decisions with regard to developing additional port capacity, then, must be made with the recognition that future needs are difficult to determine. There is less uncertainty about the time required to develop additional port capacity. Port construction requires long lead times that will be measured in years. In the case of major federal dredging projects, the lead time is now 22 years. The nation, then, faces a fundamental mismatch between the uncertain and fluctuating character of future need and the certain and long times required to develop additional port capacity. A decision to develop additional capacity, therefore, involves risks. Unless those risks are taken, however, the United States precludes the opportunity to take advantage of any benefits offered by large ships in the future. It must be emphasized that particularly with regard to bulk commodities, extreme swings in trade and transport have traditionally occurred over very short

3 periods of time. To take advantage of rapidly expanding markets, the nation must have available port capacity when those swings occur. To protect against the loss of those markets when world demand declines, the nation must be able to offer its products at the lowest possible cost. The major findings of the study immediately succeed this summary. It must be noted that the key finding--the nation needs additional port capacity--is not derived from a detailed economic analysis. Rather, the finding represents the committee's consensus judgment of what is in the nation's interest, given an uncertain future. The committee found only disagreement in its review of existing research and in its interviews with experts concerning future port needs and the economic benefits of deeper ports. Thus, there is no consensus in the expert community on the costs and benefits of deeper ports. The committee chose to frame the central question of its study, then, as "What should the nation do if future port needs are uncertain?" and concluded that in the face of uncertainty it is prudent to have increased options--that capability should exist to enjoy maximum benefits given a wide range of future developments. A common reading of several developments led to this consensus judgment--the growing importance of world trade to the economic well-being of the United States; a trend to larger ships because they offer economies of scale; the importance of ocean transportation costs in the delivered price of high-volume, low-cost commodities, such as coal; the growing number of deep-water ports in other countries; rapid year-to-year fluctuation in trade in particular commodities; and the long lead times required to develop deep port capacity, and thus, the inability to develop additional port capacity in response to short-term fluctuation and need. The report is organized into seven chapters. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the background and issues associated with port dredging. The following six chapters investigate the six basic issues which the committee found must be resolved if the port adequacy question is to be meaningfully addressed. Those six questions are as follows: (1) Does the United States need additional port capacity to handle large ships? (2) Is dredging the most attractive way for the United States to handle large ships? (3) How should dredging be funded and what are the implications for dredging of various funding approaches? (It should be emphasized that the committee, in defining this task, excluded overly specific funding recommendations. Resolution of the funding issue is inherently a political choice, which in the system of the United States must be made by Congress.) (4) What are the causes of the slowdown in decision making for local port projects and the stalemate for federal projects, and what are the ways to bring increased speed, predictability, and stability to the decision making process? (5) What are the problems associated with the design and implementation of new construction dredging and how can they be dealt with? (6) What are the environmental problems associated with dredging, and can they be effectively managed? The 33 findings that follow are organized as responses to each of these questions.

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Are the nation's ports adequate for our present and future needs? This volume points out that no significant new deep-water construction has occurred for a decade, and provides the information and analysis needed to goad the ports and the federal government into action. The book asks three questions: Is additional port construction and maintenance dredging needed now or over the next 20 years? What would prevent dredging if it is needed? What alternatives could make additional dredging possible? The book identifies several problems in dredging ports, including the long interval between a decision to deepen a port and the time the alterations are complete. The United States needs to speed port construction to meet changing needs, and the committee recommends that we prepare for future needs by dredging now.

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