Guest column: Port critical to economy

South Carolina’s Upstate is home to world class manufacturing facilities. The success of companies located here and the creation of good-paying jobs for South Carolinians depend on the ability to efficiently move locally made products to destinations across the globe.

South Carolina’s ports are an essential link in this chain of commerce. Without modern facilities and capacity at the Port of Charleston, many new BMWs fresh off the line in Spartanburg could not reach their destinations around the world as cost-effectively as possible. Without reliable ports, South Carolina could not hold the title of birthplace of every BMW X5 SUV in the world.

This is why modern ports and waterways are not just critical to coastal areas. If we do not adequately maintain and improve this infrastructure, then manufacturers may no longer see the advantages of locating in places like Greenville and Spartanburg.

Making sure the United States has modern ports and waterways infrastructure is about keeping all of South Carolina and America competitive in today’s global economy.

Transportation by water is the least expensive, most fuel efficient mode of cargo transport. When 10 percent of a product’s total cost can be attributed to transportation, the efficiency of our ports can significantly impact the price of doing business in our communities.

Companies like BMW, Michelin, Bridgestone, and others are investing billions in South Carolina, in part because the existing infrastructure across the state has made investing worthwhile. Good infrastructure creates a competitive advantage.

We must continue to make these kinds of investments in America attractive to job creators. The nation’s trade volume is expected to double within a decade, and double again by 2030. The number of ships wanting to call at American ports is increasing, and so are the sizes of those vessels.

But if our ports, waterways and other infrastructure cannot keep pace, if products manufactured here become less competitive in the global marketplace, then companies may look to invest elsewhere.

Expansion of the Panama Canal will be completed next year, making it easier for ships from Asia to reach our eastern ports, and for American exports to make the return trip. Currently, only seven U.S. east coast ports are deep enough to handle the largest “post-Panamax” ships that will be coming through the canal. South Carolina’s deep water port, Charleston, is not one of them.

While BMW has invested heavily in South Carolina, the company exports 70 percent of the cars made here. South Carolina is also the largest tire exporter in the country. One factor that has allowed the Palmetto State and the nation to attract manufacturers has been the quality of our transportation system. However, without action, the demands of our nation’s growing trade volume will soon exceed the capacity of our aging infrastructure.

Brazil, which is prepared to invest $26 billion on a massive port modernization effort to become more competitive with the United States, has also been targeted recently for investment by BMW. Neither private companies nor other countries will wait for us. If we fall behind, we risk losing business and jobs.

This issue does not affect just South Carolina. Helping to maintain an infrastructure that connects American consumers, manufacturers, and farmers to domestic and world markets has always been a key federal responsibility. The Constitution clearly tasks our country’s government with facilitating the free flow of commerce throughout our nation. Some of the very first acts of Congress were authorizing navigation improvements at our burgeoning country’s harbors.

But like much of America’s infrastructure, our ports and waterways were built for the previous centuries’ economies. Many structures within this aging transportation network are now improperly sized and inadequately maintained. The most cost-effective goods delivery system we have is becoming obsolete.

Current efforts to maintain and improve this infrastructure are often plagued by red tape. While major port improvements in the United States can take 17 years, the Panama Canal expansion will have taken less than 10 years. We must do better.

This week, we are in South Carolina to examine the ports in Charleston and Georgetown, and discuss with local leaders the importance of this infrastructure to the BMWs and other companies of the world. In the coming weeks, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will develop a Water Resources Development Act, legislation to ensure that South Carolina and the nation are better prepared to address our port and waterways infrastructure needs. Doing so will help us remain globally competitive and will benefit every U.S. citizen, whether or not they can smell salt water from their front door.

Rep. Tom Rice represents South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District. U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., is chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.