What makes a well-functioning port? Let us count the ways. There are a number of factors that contribute to the success of a port. First is location. A port should be in a region with natural resources, access to transportation and enough space for future growth. Second, it should have access to funding through government or private investment. Without this, infrastructure that facilitates the transport of goods can’t be built—tanks, cranes, quays and jetties, for example.
Third, a port should be able to accommodate ships. Does the port provide easy access during low and high tides? How well are the facilities maintained, particularly during flooding, droughts, or in extreme weather? Great ports also have the resources needed to function, including piers, stacking yards, and warehouses. And last, for the ports with an eye toward the future, they should also have access to land that will help with expansion. It will provide easy access to transport—river, rail, road.
A great port is the rare amalgam of art and science—like these leading American ports from coast to coast.
1. Port of New York and New Jersey
With 72 percent of the first port of calls on the East Coast, the Port of New York and New Jersey is the busiest in the region. It has contributed to the New York City area becoming an affluent commercial district nationally and globally. The largest port on the East Coast is also the third-largest in the United States.
It supports 400,000 jobs and has generated almost $8.5 billion in local, state, and federal tax revenues. It has facilitated more than 85 million tons of cargo worth more than $211 billion. Its top exports are wood pulp, wood and articles of wood, and plastics. Top imports are beverages, plastic and machinery parts. New York and New Jersey is No. 3 nationally for the total volume of exports, the highest on the East Coast, behind the West Coast ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.
2. Ports of Tacoma and Seattle
The Port of Seattle and the Port of Tacoma—both located in Washington State and jointly operated by the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA)—is the fourth-largest container gateway. The NWSA, by way of the Port of Seattle and the Port of Tacoma, also ships bulk, breakbulk, project/heavy-lift cargos and vehicles. These ports provide a gateway for major distribution points in the Midwest, Ohio Valley and East Coast.
The NWSA is also a key trade partner with Asia. International trade generated was worth $75.3 billion in 2017. Domestic trade, which includes routes through Puget Sound on the way to Alaska, generated $5.4 billion in 2015, according to the NWSA. The No. 1 gateway for refrigerated exports, the NWSA ports helped generate more than $4.3 billion in revenue for Washington State.
3. Port of Los Angeles
The Port of Los Angeles isn’t quite located in the city of Los Angeles but is 25 miles south in the San Pedro Bay. Nonetheless, the Port of LA is the No. 1 container port in the U.S. in terms of cargo volume going in and out of the port. It includes 7,500 acres of land and 43 miles of waterfront. The Port of LA has passenger and cargo terminals that accommodate containers, cruise lines, automobiles, dry and liquid bulk, breakbulk and warehouse stage space.
Also, the No. 1 container port in the Western Hemisphere since 2000, the Port of LA moved more than 9.5 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in 2019. The port is currently undergoing a $2.6 billion infrastructural redevelopment project to strengthen its economic arm and cargo efficiency. The gateway for trade with Asia has a diverse array of exports ranging from avocados and zinc.
4. Port of Long Beach
The Port of Long Beach is the No. 2 busiest container seaport in the U.S., which is fitting because it operates in concert with its numero uno neighbor the Port of Los Angeles. Long Beach’s port supports one in five jobs in its city and contributes to $200 billion in trade annually. The port handled more than 8 million TEUs in 2018, its busiest year. Its Middle Harbor Redevelopment Project is pioneering sustainable practices through a 10-year construction program. It will redevelop two older terminals to create a more advanced, greener container terminal.
A western gateway to Asia, the port has more than 90 percent of its shipments bound for East Asian countries. The Port of Long Beach boasts 3,520 acres of land, 4,600 acres of water, 10 piers, 62 berths and 68 post-Panamax gantry cranes. It also handles 82.3 million metric tons of cargo per year.
5. Port of Houston
Houston might not be the first city that comes to mind when you think “international city,” yet the Gulf Coast location serves as a gateway to various countries. That explains why its port is built for international trade—to the point that it’s the No. 1 U.S. port in total foreign waterborne tonnage, with imports and exports combined.
The Port of Houston contributes 20 percent of the GDP for the state of Texas, worth $339 billion. With 69 percent of all U.S. Gulf Coast container traffic, the Port of Houston is the largest container port. It also prioritizes air quality in the local region through the use of alternative fuels and low-emission equipment and vehicles.
6. South Carolina Ports
Here are two winning statistics: the South Carolina Ports boast more crane moves per hour than any other U.S. port (37), and it also exported more than 194,000 vehicles in 2019. Opened in 1942, the South Carolina Ports Authority consists of public maritime terminals at the Port of Charleston, the Port of Georgetown, and inland ports in Dillion and Greer.
Deep channels accommodate vessels up to 48 feet, and ships are two hours sailing distance from open ocean to South Carolina Ports. Turnaround times for trucks at the gates are 23 minutes with nine minutes at the interchange gate. Transportation is also amenable with interstate access within two miles of all South Carolina Ports, and rail access through CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads.
7. Port of Oakland
The Port of Oakland waters are 50 feet deep to accommodate vessels that hold capacities of up to 18,000 TEUs. This up-and-coming port has transportation partners that include Union Pacific and BNSF Railway. International accounts for 92 percent of the port’s trade, with 78 percent being with Asia, 11 percent with Europe and 2 percent apiece with Australia/New Zealand and Oceania and other foreign countries. The Port of Oakland is one of the three major container ports in California that account for more than 50 percent of total U.S. cargo volume.
The port contributes to more than 73,000 jobs in the Oakland region, and more than 827,000 in the United States. Growth With Care, a five-year growth plan the port released in 2018, aims to bring in more business, with a goal of 2.6 million TEUs and an 8 percent increase in containerized cargo volume by 2022. Investing in large projects and focusing more on sustainable practices throughout the port are also part of the growth plan.
The Port of Miami (a.k.a. PortMiami) is the U.S. container port that is closest to the Panama Canal. It provides global access to Florida and much of the rest of the United States. It’s also the closest East Coast port to Mexico.
More than $1 billion was invested in 2019 to make PortMiami even more accessible globally. It has a deeper dredge to welcome large cargo vessels, and on-port rail provides alternative transportation. The port also has an underwater tunnel that connects to the interstate to keep port traffic off of the highway. PortMiami is located strategically at the nexus of north-south and east-west trade lines.
9. Port of South Louisiana
This 54-mile long port sits at the intersection of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River, which provides easy distribution for products at the domestic and international levels. The Port of Louisiana has three main interstates that connect to the port. It is also served by six major gas and oil lines, transporting more than 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day.
In 2019, the Port of Louisiana had 3,495 calls from oceangoing vessels, and 54,921 barge calls. The total throughput for the year totaled more than 258 million tons of cargo through vessels and barges. Port of South Louisiana’s Foreign Trade Zone 124 was ranked No. 1 by Merchandise Magazine based on admitted products worth $51.8 billion. The port, which is also ranked No. 1 domestically for total throughput tonnage, boasts the largest grain port in America. Air cargo is accessible through the Louis Armstrong International Airport.
10. Port of Corpus Christi
Operating since 1926, this 36-mile Texas port provides a 47-foot deep channel for domestic and international trade. It provides access through rail and road, connecting to two major interstate highways (37 and 181) and three railroads (BNSF, Kansas City Southern and Union Pacific). It is the third-largest port domestically and No. 2 for crude oil exports.
With a warm climate that allows for easy operation year-round, the Port of Corpus Christi is also a part of the Intracoastal Waterway that stretches from Brownville, Texas, to Boston, Massachusetts, along the Atlantic Coast. The port also implements renewable energy practices by using wind energy for breakbulk and heavy-lift cargo.
11. Port of Mobile
The Port of Mobile carries more than $22.4 billion in economic value to Alabama. The only deepwater port in the state, it sits on the Mobile River. It houses 5 million square feet of warehouse and open-yard space and has a channel depth of 45 feet. Its tonnage in 2018 totaled 26.8 million tons.
Major imports for the Port of Mobile include heavy lift and oversized cargo, containers, coal, aluminum, iron and steel. Major exports include heavy lift and oversized cargo, containers, coal, lumber, and plywood. The port has 1,500 miles of inland and Intracoastal waterways. It serves the Gulf of Mexico, the Ohio and Tennessee river valleys and the Great Lakes. It is owned and operated by the Alabama State Port Authority.
12. Port of Greater Baton Rouge
The Port of Greater Baton Rouge sits where the Mississippi River and Gulf Intercoastal Waterway converge. Its 45-foot shipping channel is upheld by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This port also offers access to intermodal transportation via connections to interstate highways.
The Midwest and other U.S. regions can be accessed through the Port of Baton Rouge’s 15,000 miles of inland waterways. The port also provides access to the Gulf of Mexico, Latin America and the Panama Canal. Its bulk and breakbulk cargo include asphalt, aggregates, limestone, barite, carbon black, coal and coffee.
13. Port of Plaquemines
Twenty miles south of the Port of New Orleans (and also in Louisiana) is the Port of Plaquemines, which boasts of more than 100 miles of deep-draft access, with a minimum of 45 feet. It’s within the same Plaquemines Parish where you will find the unincorporated community of Venice, which supports oil and gas tonnage. Venice has pipelines, petroleum infrastructure and draft wharfage with both deep and shallow water to support vessels carrying oil supply.
The Port of Plaquemines, which can be accessed by 33 U.S. states, has annual tonnage exceeding 55 million tons. Popular imports include coke, carbon black feedstock, crude and fuel oil. Exports include coal, grain-corn, soybean and wheat.
14. Port of Metropolitan St. Louis
That is how the city of St. Louis, Missouri’s port authority refers to the important trade hub in the Midwest. The 70-mile port is the second-largest inland port in the U.S. Its cargoes include grain, coal, chemicals, and petroleum products.
Metro St. Louis is also the 17th largest port in the U.S., with an intermodal transportation system that includes six Class One railroads, seven interstates, and two international airports. It has access to two foreign trade zones and contributes to thousands of jobs in Missouri and Illinois. The Port of Metropolitan St. Louis ships more than 36 tons of freight annually. It has 16 public terminals and more than 130 piers, wharves, docks, and fleeting.
15. Port of Portland
Oregon’s Port of Portland may be on the West Coast, but it is a central trade hub for the Midwest, having shipped more than 4 million tons of grain worldwide in 2017. It has been an auto gateway since 1953, importing and exporting vehicles manufactured by Ford, Toyota, Hyundai and Honda. More than 300,000 automobiles were imported or exported through the Port of Portland’s terminals in 2019.
This port’s intermodal transportation includes rail and interstate highways. With three airports, four terminals, and five business parks, the Port of Portland has also helped generate more than $6.4 billion a year for the region. It has also helped spur the creation of 27,000 jobs and contributes to more than $1.8 billion in wages.
16. Port of Pascagoula
More than 32 million tons of cargo pass through this Southeastern Mississippi port each year. The Port of Pascagoula is Mississippi’s largest seaport. This port provides easy access for shipment through the Gulf of Mexico. Shipping lanes can be accessed within two hours from open ocean, and the channels are 42 feet deep.
The Port of Pascagoula is operated by the Jackson County Port Authority. Popular imports are forest products, crude oil, and chemicals. Exports are forest products, paper products, petroleum products, chemicals and project cargo. It ranks No. 23 in total trade—domestic plus international—with a volume of 27 million tons in 2018, according to statistics from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Each of these ports fulfills different factors that help them to successfully function in their respective regions. Whether it’s the depth of the channels to allow for varying size ships to dock or easy access to transportation, these ports help to facilitate domestic and international trade. In turn, they help spur the creation of jobs and stronger local, state and national economies. Overall, these ports are helping to shape the United States economy for the better—one import, one export, at a time.