President Joe Biden visited Baltimore on Wednesday to tout his infrastructure bill and highlight his administration's work to ease port delays as the country approaches the holiday season with rising inflation and delivery slowdowns on the horizon.
Biden's visit came 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, which the president plans to sign into law on Monday during a bipartisan White House ceremony.
"I'm not waiting to sign a bill to start improving the flow of goods from ships to shelves," Biden said during remarks at the Baltimore port. "Yesterday, I announced the port -- a port plan of action. It lays out concrete steps for my administration to take over the next three months to invest in our ports and to relieve bottlenecks."
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 delivery delays.
At the same time, the prices Americans are paying for everyday goods are soaring as the country approaches the holiday season -- a potential political liability for the president. In Baltimore, he acknowledged the economic hardship people are facing.
"COVID-19 has stretched global supply chains like never before, and suddenly when you go to order a pair of sneakers or a bicycle or Christmas presents for the family, you're met with higher prices and long delays -- or they said they just don't have any at all," Biden said.
Demand for many goods has shot up just as global supply chains reel from disruptions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
"This is a recipe for delays and for higher prices, and people are feeling -- they’re feeling it," Biden said.
Biden will continue to hit the road to tout his infrastructure bill -- and pitch his larger "Build Back Better" social bill he is trying to push through Congress -- in the weeks ahead, according to the White House.
On Wednesday, he drew a clear line between the infrastructure bill and the real impact he said American families should see.
"This bipartisan infrastructure bill is a major step forward," he said. "It represents the biggest investment in ports in American history. And for American families, it means products moving faster and less expensively, from factory floor through the supply chain to your home.
"The bottom line is this," he continued. "With the bill we passed last week, and the steps we're taking to reduce bottlenecks at home and abroad, we're set to make significant progress."
On Tuesday, the president spoke with the CEOs of four major retailers and shipping companies, Walmart, UPS, FedEx and Target. He said that the executives "assured me that the shelves will be stocked in stores this holiday."
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.
"Outdated infrastructure has a real cost for families, as we all know, for our economy and for competitiveness," White House deputy press secretary Karine 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.
In Baltimore, Biden explained how his administration was helping fund the expansion of a 126-year-old tunnel near the port to accommodate trains carrying containers stacked on top of each other.
A senior 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.
"It's an example of the kind of investments that are needed from both the private and public sector side," the official told reporters Tuesday. "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."