Most U.S. Port Terminals Are Foreign-Run

Critics of the Dubai Ports World deal have suggested that U.S. ports should be run by U.S. companies. But the vast majority of port terminals are leased and run by foreign companies and that's unlikely to change.

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With Democratic and Republican politicians challenging a Bush Administration plan to hire a company from Dubai to manage terminals at six American ports, the company this weekend said it was willing to wait 45 days to allow for a more extensive security investigation, that according to the Associated Press.

Several politicians have suggested that no foreign company should manage operations at United States ports. NPR's Adam Davidson looked into how many American port terminals are managed by foreign companies, and what it would take to ensure that only American companies manage American ports.

ADAM DAVIDSON reporting:

There are about 15 major ports in the U.S. Each is divided into a handful of separately operated terminals. That makes roughly 100 terminals.

SSA Marine is the single biggest U.S.-owned terminal operator.

Mr. BOB WATERS (Vice President, SSA Marine): We operate seven of those terminals.

DAVIDSON: Bob Waters is SSA Vice President. And let me repeat what he just said: the biggest U.S.-owned terminal operator manages seven terminals. The next biggest? That's Maher Terminals, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. They manage one terminal. Waters says about a dozen are managed by city or state governments.

Mr. WATERS: Other than that, the rest of the terminals, which comprises about 80 percent of those terminals we're talking about, are operated by foreign entities, primarily shipping lines.

DAVIDSON: So United States companies have eight, foreign companies have 80. Those companies managing U.S. terminals are all over the world, in China, Denmark, Singapore, South Korea.

Could SSA Marine, the nation's biggest terminal manager, take over a significant number of those foreign managed ports?

Mr. WATERS: Well, it would be an interesting challenge.

DAVIDSON: It wouldn't be a challenge, says Peter Tirschwell, publisher of the Journal of Commerce, it would be nearly impossible.

Mr. PETER TIRSCHWELL (Publisher, Journal of Commerce): It would be an extraordinary upheaval, so large as to be difficult to even contemplate it.

DAVIDSON: Imagine that Congress does mandate that only United States companies can operate terminals in U.S. ports, Tirschwell says. There would be two options, and neither is good.

The first is for the handful of existing U.S.-owned companies to take over all foreign owned terminals. That, he says, is simply inconceivable. These companies would have to instantly grow to ten times their current size.

The other option is for U.S. companies in other industries to start offering terminal operation services. That's equally hard to imagine, Tirschwell says.

Mr. TIRSCHWELL: It's a very complex business, and the companies that do it, they all do it on the basis of years of management and expertise, you know, literally refined over decades. It's not the type of business that outsiders traditionally enter.

DAVIDSON: Tirschwell says this isn't just an issue for people who happen to work at ports. The U.S. way of life, our economy, is based on the fast and free flow of internationally traded goods.

A dramatic transformation of the U.S. port system would all but certainly disrupt that trade, he says, and hurt the U.S. economy.

Joe King, former chief of the Terrorism Unit at U.S. Customs, says government has to secure our ports, even if it comes at a cost.

Mr. JOE KING (Former Chief, U.S. Customs Terrorism Unit): There is always a debate in the U.S. government between trade and security. For the last 20 years, trade is winning it.

DAVIDSON: Even King says that foreign ownership is inevitable. Too much security could cause real pain.

Mr. KING: You'd have containers backed up that you could walk across the Pacific Ocean on, they'd be so tightly packed.

DAVIDSON: Some, like Senator Hillary Clinton, have suggested that the U.S. should allow foreign companies to run U.S. terminals, but forbid companies owned by foreign governments. That's almost equally impossible, says Tirschwell, of the Journal of Commerce.

He points out that foreign governments have interests in many U.S. ports. The government of Singapore owns most of a company that operates terminals in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Two Chinese companies, both with close ties to the Chinese government, manage terminals in New York, Long Beach, and other places. And the government of Venezuela owns all or part of marine terminal management at ports in Pennsylvania and Maine.

Adam Davidson, NPR News, New York.

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