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What is the significance of a port town?

The nation's ports play an important role in our intermodal transportation system and national economy.

By Ankit ShahPublished 7 months ago 4 min read

The nation's ports play an important role in our intermodal transportation system and national economy. The United States receives over 95 percent of its cargo by ship.1 More than 360 commercial ports across the country help to move these goods to their destination in the United States.3 This understanding can help residents better engage with decisions that affect near-port communities.

Ports have a significant impact on both the local and regional economies, in addition to their effect on the national economy. See Section 6 (Local, Regional Economy) for more information.

Although the Ports Primer focuses on ports, there are many factors that may apply to large intermodal freight facilities located far from waterways. These facilities are often called inland ports. This Ports Primer focuses on the goods movement aspects of port-related functions. However, many of these issues (e.g. idling vessels) also apply to the travel/passenger aspect of port functions.

The National Economy

American ports serve as gateways to international and domestic trade. According to The American Association of Port Authorities, U.S. seaports receive more than 99 percent of their overseas cargo volume by volume and 65 percent by value.4 AAPA, a trade association, represents public port authorities across the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. These numbers are significant because the U.S.'s international trade value accounts for almost 30 percent of its GDP. Gross Domestic Product (GDP). To meet rising consumer demand, more ships call at U.S. ports than ever before.

Port and port-related employment

Two people work at a port.

Ports are a significant source of local employment in many communities. Ports can be employers, but they also provide employment opportunities in related industries like trucking and rail transport. The American Association of Port Authorities reports that deepwater ports supported 541,946 jobs in the United States in 2014. These workers earned an average of $54,273. The port activity also generated more than 23 million jobs in related industries and their overall economic impact on surrounding communities.6

Major Shipping Commodities

The following are the top commodities that have been shipped through U.S. ports:

  • Petroleum products and crude petroleum (such as gasoline, aviation fuel, and natural gas)
  • Chemicals and their related products, such as inorganic fertilizers
  • Coal
  • Food and farm products: Wheat and wheat flour, corn, soybeans, rice, cotton, and coffee
  • Forest products: lumber and wood chips
  • Iron and steel
  • Soil, sand, gravel, rock, stone

The largest ports USA also carry additional commodities:

  • Automobiles, parts for automobiles, and machinery
  • Clothing, shoes, and electronics.

Ports can handle many different commodity mixtures. Ports may be focused on one type of commodity, while others are more diverse.

Intermodal Transportation System

This graphic shows the link between goods and consumers via highways, railroads, or air transit.

The Intermodal Transportation System connects goods and consumers.

Ports are important transport hubs that allow goods to move between local communities and global markets. The figure below shows how ports can link goods to consumers via our highway system, rails, air transit, and domestic marine highways (water transport routes). These ports can include both seaports and smaller intercoastal or inland ports that allow goods to be moved between seaports and local communities. Intermodal Transportation is the movement of cargo between different transport modes.

Ports are looking to expand their internal capacity as trade grows. They may increase efficiency and invest in infrastructure to accommodate larger ships. To avoid bottlenecks caused by other modes of transport, ports may coordinate with municipalities, metropolitan planning organizations, federal and state Departments of Transportation, and other agencies.

National Defense and Emergency Preparedness8

Ports play an important part in national defense, as well as being economic drivers and transport hubs. The U.S. Department of Defense has designated fifteen of our commercial seaports as Strategic Seaports (see map below). These ports can be used to support military deployments.

Strategic Seaports in the United States

Because of their large storage areas, connections with rail infrastructure, and ability to load cargo that is not containerized. These capabilities can be used by ports to assist in emergency relief efforts, such as those of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for natural disasters.

During military surge operations, the DOD relies heavily on Strategic Seaports. These ports were used by the DOD to load combat vehicles or aircraft during Operation Iraqi Freedom. For these operations, Strategic Seaports must have sufficient rail infrastructure, large staging areas for military cargo, and skilled workers who can handle non-containerized military gear. Our commercial seaports will continue to see increasing amounts of container shipping. This could mean that port staging areas and rail capacity may become less available to support military operations.

Homeland Security

Port security is a concern. Security at ports is a major concern due to the volume of cargo traffic that passes through them. It is essential for security measures to be taken to ensure that they are adequately monitored and protected while still allowing goods to flow freely. Complex and multiple actors can have different responsibilities and oversight of port security. The President approved the National Strategy for Maritime Security in October 2005. This strategy includes plans to address preparedness, protection, and recovery for man-made as well as natural hazards that could pose security threats at the nation's ports.


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