ASG Chair Carlos Gutierrez discusses transportation planning and free trade agreements

Aging roads, bridges hinder commerce growth, Tampa conference participants told

By Yvette C. Hammett | Tribune Staff

TAMPA — Panama invested a huge chunk of its national income to expand the Panama Canal, infrastructure improvements necessary to handle more and larger ships and keep the country’s economy moving forward.

With a growing population and the need to ship freight at an even faster pace these days — think Amazon and other distribution centers — the United States needs to do the same with its roads and bridges, according to speakers at Thursday’s conference on Shifting International Trade Routes.

“Urbanization is going to continue and will demand smaller and more frequent deliveries,” said Carlos Gutierrez, former commerce secretary and ex-CEO for Kellogg Co., speaking at Le Meridien in Tampa. “We need to be thinking about that last mile. It will impact the productivity of the port.”

Fixing the infrastructure — the nation’s roads and bridges — is just as important here as the expansion of the Panama Canal is in Panama, said Gutierrez, now chairman of Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington, D.C. “City planners need to be on it.”

"We are fortunate that over half a billion dollars was invested in the Crosstown connector,” the connector highway from Interstate 4 to the Selmon Expressway, to move freight faster to and from Port Tampa Bay, said Port Tampa Bay President and CEO Paul Anderson. “It’s the next 50 miles” that’s so tough.

"When you leave our port in a truck and you have a 50- minute wait to go just a few miles, it doesn’t make sense,” Anderson said. “We’re living on our grandparents’ infrastructure and just getting around to expanding. It wasn’t built to support this amount of people or the way freight is being distributed now.”

The world is changing, Anderson said, and the road system needs to keep up.

Gutierrez also suggested there is a disconnect in Washington, D.C., between those doing transportation planning and those working on free trade agreements and other trade issues.

“The federal budget has diversified and infrastructure takes a back seat,” he said.

Panama Canal Authority Administrator Jorge Quijano agreed.

“We talk to railroads and to distribution centers and they all talk about infrastructure,” Quijano said. “For the Panama Canal to be able to serve ports, they need infrastructure” to move freight from ports to the end users, he said.

In addition to pushing the issue of infrastructure to the forefront, Gutierrez told the group, the United States also needs to work on educating the public on the need for free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which help bolster the economy.

The partnership, proponents say, will unleash new economic growth on all countries involved. Those 12 countries are: the United States, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru.

Asia is the world’s fastest-growing economy, Gutierrez said. If it develops a free trade agreement with other countries and not the United States, that would have consequences for this country’s economy, he said.

Gutierrez said he thinks the partnership has about a 50-50 chance of getting approved by Congress. “If it doesn’t go through, it is signaling to the rest of the world the U.S. is pulling back just when the rest of the world is moving forward.”

Stitching together free trade agreements among nations in the Western Hemisphere, such as the United States and countries in South and Central America, is also of great importance, Gutierrez said. “I think the priority for us and especially Tampa is geographic proximity. That’s job No. 1.”

Twitter: @Yvette_Hammett

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