port infrastructure




The nation’s more than 300 coastal and inland ports are significant drivers of the U.S. economy, supporting 30.8 million jobs in 2018 and 26% of the total GDP. Ports and port tenants plan to spend $163 billion between 2021 and 2025, up by over $8 billion in the last four years. Investments are focused on capacity and efficiency enhancements as maximum vessel size has doubled over the last 15 years, and tonnage at the top 25 ports grew by 4.4% from 2015 to 2019. Federal funding has increased through multimodal competitive grant programs. However, there is a funding gap of over $12 billion for waterside infrastructure such as dredging over the next 10 years, with additional billions needed for landside infrastructure. Smaller and inland ports are especially challenged to maintain their infrastructure and have difficulty competing for federal grants. Meanwhile, a port’s success is reliant on the infrastructure outside of its gates, which is often congested or in poor condition. For example, just 9% of intermodal connector pavement — the portions of roadway that connect a port to other modes — are in good or very good condition.

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port infrastructure

Seaports contributed

nearly 26% of the total GDP

in 2018

Ports and port tenants

plan to spend $163 billion on their own infrastructure

between 2021 and 2025

30.8 million jobs

were supported

by ports in 2018


The United States’ more than 300 ports serve as major economic drivers and places of employment. According to the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), seaports contributed $5.4 trillion to the economy, or nearly 26% of the total GDP in 2018. The economic impact of ports is only growing. AAPA estimates that 30.8 million jobs were supported by ports in 2018, up from 23.1 million in 2014.

Seaports in the U.S. are often located in or adjacent to large coastal metropolitan areas. By comparison, inland ports are located on the Great Lakes or the inland waterway network and are frequently in more rural areas. Ports thrive on their flexibility to handle a variety of products, from bulk aggregates and agriculture to liquids and manufactured goods and equipment.

Port facilities vary widely in terms of productivity, footprint, customers, and governance. Some ports are privately owned and operated, while others are managed by a government or quasi-government authority representing a city or state. The owner of a port may lease space or infrastructure to a tenant, most commonly a terminal operator. Terminal operators are responsible for maintaining equipment and buildings but typically partner with a public agency for major capital projects. The varied ownership structures contribute to the uniqueness of each port — the industry saying goes, “once you’ve seen one port, you’ve seen one port.”

Capacity & Condition

Port infrastructure includes docks, piers, channel harbors, and more. In general, the conditions from terminal to terminal within a port vary. However, all ports are challenged to maintain their infrastructure in harsh marine environments. Corrosion from saltwater and de-icing salts, constant wet and dry cycles, temperature variations, and more accelerate the rate of decline of everything from cranes to wharfs. Port owners are tasked with monitoring the structural integrity of their infrastructure in these harsh environments.

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Funding & Future Need

Funding for port infrastructure is derived from a variety of sources, including federal, state, and local funding, as well as private sector revenue streams. Waterside infrastructure needs — namely for dredging — are paid for through the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF). The HMTF collects its revenue through a 0.125% user fee on the value of the cargo in imported containers, which equates to approximately $15 per container box. Ports, particularly on the East and Gulf coasts, have significant dredging needs, but the fund’s balance has traditionally been used to pay for things other than port needs, its designated purpose.

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port infrastructure

Operations & Maintenance

The USDOT Strategic Plan identifies lifecycle and preventive maintenance as a strategic objective to keep the nation’s infrastructure in a state of good repair. To implement this strategic objective, the Maritime Administration initiated an internal review in 2017 and found that ongoing planning frequently fails to target state-of-good-repair projects and could be better at considering resiliency to threats like weather and earthquakes. The Maritime Administration subsequently instituted a risk-based asset management program and is encouraging port owners and operators to utilize the risk rating and scoring systems created by the agency.

asce advisory council

Public Safety & Resilience

Ports have a key role to play in helping a community recover from a natural or manmade disaster. Goods can be transported via oceans and inland waterways to communities in need when other trade routes are blocked. Similarly, berths can accommodate emergency vessels and personnel, as was observed in 2020 when the 1,000-bed hospital ship USNS Comfort docked at Port 90 in Manhattan to serve patients during the COVID-19 crisis. Ports are also able to support force deployment in the instance homeland protection is needed. Nine federal agencies, including the U.S. Army, Army Corps of Engineers, and the Maritime Administration work together to ensure preparedness for national defense emergencies.

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Advanced Analytics

In the U.S., the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles each have one fully automated terminal. Three semi-automated terminals can be found in Virginia and New Jersey. Automation stands to add throughput capacity and provide safety benefits.

Advanced analytics, such as blockchain, use existing and historic data collected with devices and sensors, through open-sourced platforms can improve efficiencies at ports. Such benefits are already being realized abroad. Advanced analytics also aid ports in becoming more resilient as predictive approaches driven by machine learning ensure flexible, responsive, and adaptive management amid highly complex and dynamic scenarios.

Raising the Grade

Solutions that Work

Remove the multimodal cap on INFRA funds and increase overall investment in the INFRA and BUILD programs to ensure ports can effectively distribute and receive goods as ships continue to grow in size.

Appropriate funds to the Congressionally authorized projects to ensure that projects crucial to freight movement are completed in a timely manner.

Adopt new technologies to reduce wait times at docks, boost efficiency, improve resilience, and increase security.

Improve freight and landside connections to strengthen the entire freight system and reduce congestion that is costly to the economy when moving goods.

Ensure that ports are a part of comprehensive disaster planning. Ports play a critical role in the aftermath of a disaster, facilitating the movement of people and the delivery of supplies. Integrating ports into a holistic disaster recovery plan — one that is developed with all stakeholders and is based on the data and data sharing — is vital to ensuring a community can quickly recover.

Port owners and operators should utilize asset management to prioritize limited funding and pinpoint needed repairs.

Ensure smaller ports can compete in existing and new competitive grant programs.

Spend down the balance of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund on port projects.

View Report Sources

U.S. Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration, “Ports,” accessed September 29, 2020.

American Association of Port Authorities, “2018 National Economic Impact of the U.S. Coastal Port System,” March 2019.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Ports Primer 3.1 Port Operations,” accessed September 29, 2020.

American Association of Port Authorities, “Seaport Governance in the United States and Canada,” February 2012.

Bipartisan Policy Center, “A Deep Dive on America’s Ports,” July 2017.

Valdez B, Ramirez J, Eliezer A, Schorr M, Ramos R & Salinas R, Journal of Marine Engineering & Technology, “Corrosion assessment of infrastructure assets in coastal seas,” 2016, 15:3, 124-134. DOI: 10.1080/20464177.2016.1247635

Margaronis S, American Journal of Transportation, “Port of Oakland Welcomes 19,200 TEU MSC Anna, one of the largest container ships to call North America,” April 17, 2020.

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U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “Port Performance Freight Statistics in 2018: Annual Report to Congress 2019,” January 2020, page 19.

U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “Port Performance Freight Statistics in 2018: Annual Report to Congress 2019,” January 2020, Table 1.

U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “Port Performance Freight Statistics in 2018: Annual Report to Congress 2019,” January 2020.

U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Freight Management and Operations, “Freight Intermodal Connectors Study, Chapter 6. Summary of Key Findings and Options for Future Research.” April 2017.

Congressional Research Service, “Water Resources Development Act of 2020,” updated January 5, 2021.

Davis J, Eno Center for Transportation, “DOT Announces $1.5 Billion in BUILD Surface Transportation Grants,” December 11, 2018.

U.S. Department of Transportation, “Maritime Administration Announces More Than $280 Million in Grants for Nation’s Ports.” U.S. DOT Maritime Administration, February 14, 2020, press release.

U.S. Department of Transportation, “U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao Announces Over $220 Million in Grants for America’s Ports,” October 15, 2020, press release.

Florida Department of Transportation, “FSTED Program.”

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Missouri Department of Transportation, “Freight Enhancement Program (FRE).”

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American Association of Port Authorities, “Results of AAPA’s Port Planned Infrastructure Investment Survey,” April 30, 2020.

American Society of Civil Engineers, “Ports and Inland Waterways: Anchoring the U.S. Economy,” January 2021.

American Association of Port Authorities, “2018 National Economic Impact of the U.S. Coastal Port System,” March 2019.

U.S. Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration, Office of Ports & Waterways, “Risk-Based Lifecycle Management of In-Water Structures,” presentation given at American Association of Port Authorities Facilities Engineering Seminar, April 2019.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “USNS COMFORT Arrives in New York in Support of COVID-19 Response Efforts,” Washington Headquarters Services, U.S. Military, press release, March 30, 2020.

U.S. Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration, “National Port Readiness Network (NPRN),” accessed September 30, 2020.

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Mongelluzzo B, Journal of Commerce, “More North American port automation expected,” July 4, 2019.

Leonard M, Supply Chain Dive, “Brief: Moody’s: With port automation comes political risk.” June 27, 2019.

Port of Rotterdam, Carbon Neutral in 3 Steps, accessed September 29, 2020.

Photo Attributions

  1. Photo Courtesy of Build Together
  2. Photo by Kevin Dooley, courtesy of Creative Commons
  3. Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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