Port infrastructure in spotlight at annual Propeller Club convention

The following is a news release from the International Propeller Club:

(CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.) — As talk in Washington, D.C., these days includes conversations on the administration’s proposed $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan, maritime infrastructure was in the spotlight at the 91st annual International Propeller Club Convention held Oct. 18-20 in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The theme of the convention was “Modernizing Ports for the Future” and was hosted by the Propeller Club of Port Canaveral.  

The slate of speakers included Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft, Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby, and Federal Maritime Commissioner William Doyle. Florida Gov. Rick Scott was the convention’s opening speaker at the Space Shuttle Atlantis Pavilion at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. This appeared to many convention goers a fitting venue featuring an icon to both a bygone era of large spending projects on visionary initiatives as well as a reflection of the nation’s current infrastructure spending deficit, symbolized by the lack of a clear-cut vision and replacement for the shuttle program when it was retired.

Scott touted his administration’s strong commitment to Florida’s ports as evidenced by investments of over $1.2 billion since 2011. He stated that commitment would continue as long as he remains governor. This investment in port infrastructure was pointed to by panelists later during the maritime industry conference portion of the convention as an example of the state, local, and private sector investment that has led the way over federal dollars in port and waterway improvements in recent years as preparations have been made to be ready for the larger ships now regularly plying the world’s trade routes. In a nod to the potential for bipartisan support for a comprehensive infrastructure bill in Congress, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson made an appearance at the Space Center venue by video recording and voiced his support for increased federal spending for the maritime sector. Nelson was a payload specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986 while a member of congress.    

While port and waterway infrastructure improvements received most of the attention from the convention speakers, infrastructure destruction caused by this year’s extreme hurricane season was discussed by both Zukunft and Buzby in their remarks. Zukunft highlighted the Coast Guard’s hurricane response efforts and Buzby discussed the activation of four Ready Reserve Force vessels for hurricane response including maritime academy training vessels T/S Empire State, T/S General Rudder, and T/S Kennedy. The Coast Guard commandant included remarks on climate change during his keynote address opening the maritime conference. He stated that any port infrastructure planning for the future most certainly needed to include provisions for sea level rise. Buzby, whose last active duty assignment was commander of Military Sealift Command, reaffirmed his commitment to the Jones Act, the Cargo Preference Program, and the Maritime Security program to maintain strategic sealift capability for U.S. national security. Both men pointed to manpower challenges for the Coast Guard and the Merchant Marine respectively. Zukunft stated that today’s Coast Guard sailors are the most highly educated ever while Buzby noted that without maintaining a labor pool of merchant mariners in time of peace, the nation will not have them available in time of war.  

Panel discussions on infrastructure covered cybersecurity, liquefied natural gas (LNG) for ship fuel, waterside navigation and harbor improvements, landside improvements and port security. The panel on LNG as a ship fuel was moderated by Doyle and included industry pioneers including Peter Keller, executive vice president at TOTE Inc.; Chad Verret, executive vice president at Harvey Gulf International, and Matt Jackson, vice president, Crowley LNG. The discussion covered the infrastructure needed by ports to supply LNG to ships. Port Canaveral CEO Capt. John Murray weighed in from the port perspective stating that he expected Port Canaveral would need to be ready to bunker ships with LNG as early as 2020 to 2021 given the fact that cruise lines currently have 16 new cruise ships under construction that will run on LNG for fuel. Doyle was joined by Coast Guard Capt. Ryan Manning, chief of Office of Ports and Facilities Compliance, for a discussion on cybersecurity, a topic also included in both Zukunft’s and Buzby’s remarks. All agreed that the hacking earlier this year of A.P. Moller-Maersk served as a wake-up call to the industry that cybersecurity investment needs to become a priority.

Barry Holliday, executive director of the Dredging Contractors of America, Kurt Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities, and Doug Wheeler, president and CEO of the Florida Ports Council, talked about navigation channel deepening and widening projects as well as port infrastructure spending trends in general. Wheeler noted that the many projects were not so much a product of an “if we build it, they will come” mentality, but rather, a reaction to market demand for harbors able to handle larger ships. He noted that even the Panama Canal expansion project was in response to market demand and that the canal’s new locks are not able to accommodate the largest ships currently serving maritime trade.  

Holliday and Nagle shared that there has been some good progress in recent years on the federal side in that the first Water Resources Reform and Development Act in seven years was passed in 2014 and another WRRDA was passed in 2016, getting the program back on track for periodic renewal and adding reforms to help streamline the process of allocating the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for Army Corps of Engineers projects. However, they noted that a large project backlog exists, in part due to underutilization of the fund in the past, and the HMTF will not be sufficient to meet all the funding demands going forward. They touted a unified approach by a coalition formed to advocate for ports and waterways infrastructure spending in any new bill that brings together both coastal and inland waterway interests.

The Maritime Administration’s associate administrator for ports and waterways, Lauren Brand, led a panel on landside infrastructure and port security. She echoed the need for a unified approach to infrastructure spending that includes rail, highways, and ports. She noted that upon reviewing freight strategic planning conducted under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015, that ports were not being adequately included. Customs and Border Protection Area Port Director Gaetano Cordone and Manning rounded out the panel and both agreed that the future of port infrastructure as relates to port security is increased use of technology to improve efficiency as ships get larger and trade and passenger throughput increases.

A large contingent of Propeller Club delegates from the Ohio Valley region inland ports including Evansville, Ind., Louisville, Ky., Paducah, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn., were especially interested in infrastructure spending. They pointed to the recent weeklong closure of Locks and Dam 52 on the Ohio River as an example of the dire need of more infrastructure spending on the inland waterways and noted that future projects can’t take over 30 years to fund and complete as has happened with the Olmstead Lock and Dam project which will replace Locks 52 and 53.  

Another large contingent represented at the convention were almost 30 students from college and maritime academy Propeller Club chapters. The students injected enthusiasm to the speaker Q & A sessions and they took advantage of networking opportunities with industry professionals for career advice and mentoring. The college students were joined by local students from the Rockledge High School Maritime Studies program.  

The final keynote of the convention was presented by Murray, who highlighted the phenomenal infrastructure growth of Port Canaveral since the man-made harbor was opened in 1953. A channel deepening and widening project was completed in 2016 and planning is already ongoing to take the harbor even deeper than the current 46 feet in the approach channel. An additional mega-cruise ship terminal project is underway on the heels of one completed in 2016.

The port recently rolled out a new strategic plan that includes provisions to continue to grow both cruise and cargo business and to accommodate the port’s newest business line related to the commercial space industry, a business line not even contemplated just a few years ago. He stated that the challenge for the port is to maximize the use of bulkhead space in the limited available footprint. One of the ways the port proposes to do that is by creating a new inner harbor or cove, in the aptly named “Cove” restaurant area which would create new bulkhead for small boats and free up more bulkhead along the deepwater harbor for ship traffic. Murray reiterated the port’s commitment to the commercial fishing industry which was the first to move in to the newly inaugurated port in the 1950’s and to preserve the port’s recreational offerings of boat ramps and parks which are greater than all other Florida ports combined.

The International Propeller Club of the United States is a business network dedicated to the promotion of the maritime industry, commerce, and global trade. Local port chapters are found in most major U.S. coastal and inland ports and includes many international ports as well. To learn more about the Propeller Club or to find a local chapter, visit www.propellerclub.us/home.

By Professional Mariner Staff