The American Association of Port Authorities said Wednesday the fundamental problem with a federal grant program to improve security at the nation's ports and cargo terminals is simple: not enough money.
The Department of Homeland Security has faced criticism in recent months for the way its grant programs have been run including charges that its process for distributing grant money doesn't always target the riskiest ports and that it does a poor job monitoring how the money is spent.
But Kurt Nagle, the American Association of Port Authorities' president, said such criticism misses the real problem: "a serious lack of money."
"Like airports, protecting our seaports against terrorism must be a top priority and a shared responsibility between the federal government, local public ports and private industry," Nagle said. "The federal government has mandated security enhancements for marine facilities, but has yet to adequately fund those mandates."
That, he said, creates a huge burden on ports, with both "security and economic consequences."
Nagle's statement indicates that the port industry is raising its profile on the issue. It also shows that despite a projected budget crunch that might lead to big cuts in key military weapons purchases, the association fully intends to press Congress to put more money into port security grant program in the 2006 budget.
The American Association of Port Authorities is an industry trade group that lobbies on behalf of ports at the federal level. It counts the Virginia Port Authority, which owns three major cargo terminals in Hampton Roads, as one of its members.
The Coast Guard has estimated that upgrading the nation's ports and vessels to meet new federal law passed in 2002 will cost about $7.3 billion between 2003 and 2012. But so far, Congress has issued grants of about $500 million to cover those costs, with the port industry to make up the difference.
Some lawmakers have attempted to create a national money-raising mechanism such as a fee on each cargo ship or each container to raise money to pay for port security. And some ports, including the Port of Charleston, are doing just that.
But so far, the association has rejected that approach to funding port security nationally. The group contends such a fee is an unfair tax on the shipping industry when the entire country benefits from reducing terrorism. It says the money should come from the general budget.
Ed Merkle, director of security at the Virginia Port Authority, said he agrees that the federal grant program needs to be improved. It should provide more money, and it should improve the targeting of that money to the most strategic ports.
Since 2002, he said, the Virginia Port Authority has spent $21.9 million on a wide range of port security improvements, including such things as access control measures, a command and control center, security cameras and radiation detection machines. Of the total price tag, he said, federal grants have covered about $11.38 million, with the port authority paying the rest.
But more money will be needed for future projects, Merkle said. That includes, for example, improvements to the port authority's communications system to allow the port's emergency system to be coordinated with other coming region-wide radio systems.