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Biden to visit Baltimore port amid supply chain, inflation woes

Official White House Photo by Erin Scott

(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden plans to visit Baltimore on Wednesday to tout his infrastructure bill and highlight his administration’s work to ease port delays as the United States approaches the holiday season with rising inflation and delivery slowdowns on the horizon.

Biden’s visit comes five days after Congress passed his $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that, among myriad investments in the nations’ physical infrastructure, will provide $17 billion to revitalize coastal, inland and land ports, as well as strengthen them against the effects of climate change.

The Biden administration on Tuesday announced short- and long-term steps to strengthen U.S. ports as part of an effort to tackle supply chain issues, including using money from the infrastructure bill.

As the U.S. continues to slowly emerge from the pandemic, Biden has been grappling with a crisis up and down the supply chain defined by worker shortages and bottlenecks.

On Tuesday, the president spoke with the CEOs of four major retailers and shipping companies — Walmart, UPS, FedEx and Target — “to discuss steps that the administration and private sector can take to further strengthen our supply chains and build on steps we’ve already taken to speed up deliveries and lower prices,” a White House official said.

Even though the president does not plan to sign the infrastructure bill until next week — he has said he wants to bring Democrats and Republicans together to the White House for a ceremony marking the bipartisan bill’s passage — a senior administration official said Tuesday that work was already underway to get port-related programs started.

White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment Tuesday about why Biden chose Baltimore in particular — and not a larger port like Los Angeles or Long Beach in California — but indicated that Biden would have more to say Wednesday.

“Outdated infrastructure has a real cost for families, as we all know, for our economy and for competitiveness,” Jean-Pierre said. “We’re seeing that right now, even as we move record goods through our ports, with supply chain bottlenecks forming that lead to higher prices and lower deliveries for American families.”

To provide immediate relief. the administration will now allow port authorities to redirect project cost savings toward immediate projects to address supply chain challenges, senior administration officials said Tuesday. One official said doing so was a way to “creatively” redirect grant money.

For example, the officials told reporters, the nation’s third-busiest port, in Savannah, Georgia, came under budget on a previous grant and could now use the leftover dollars to build a pop-up yard to store shipping containers; port authorities believe the site could be operational in 30 to 45 days, the officials said.

“It’s a great way to add capacity and efficiency at the port,” an official said. “We expect that that kind of flexibility will help other projects as well.”

The administration also plans to launch a $240 million grant program within the next 45 days to invest in port infrastructure — using money from the infrastructure bill.

Within the next two months, it will identify projects with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for construction work at coastal ports, inland waterways and other facilities, officials said.

In the next three months, they said, the administration will begin competition for the first round of port infrastructure grants funded by the infrastructure bill. The federal government will also identify ports of entry at the nation’s southern and northern borders that need modernization and expansion.

While the White House wouldn’t say why Biden had chosen to visit the port of Baltimore, an administration official emphasized that the port was a public-private partnership and noted the port was making major investments in adding container cranes and a second deep, 50-foot berth.

The official also highlighted how the administration is helping fund the expansion of a 126 year-old tunnel near the port to accommodate trains carrying containers stacked on top of each other.

“It’s an example of the kind of investments that are needed from both the private and public sector side,” the official said. “It’s also an illustration that the co-funding in the bipartisan infrastructure plan incentivizes the private sector to make these kinds of long-term investments as well.”

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