Getting ‘Ship’ Done

The AAPA and Cary Davis advocate for American seaports

“We are the storytellers for U.S. ports in Washington D.C.” 

That’s how Cary Davis, vice president of government relations and general counsel of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) described the organization’s work.

One of the oldest trade associations on Capitol Hill, AAPA’s origins date back to 1912, when a number of fires broke out on docks across the country. This prompted industry leaders to band together in order to improve safety standards and operating procedures. 

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Over the past century, AAPA has grown and now represents approximately 84 seaports across the Western Hemisphere. “It used to be fires consuming entirely wooden seaports and docks, and now we’re dealing with a whole different set of issues that they never could have even imagined 110 years ago,” Davis said.

Davis heads up AAPA’s advocacy efforts, telling the story of seaports to lawmakers in Congress. Lately, that story has centered around issues ranging from disruptive trade policies to the implications of offshore wind development to the “record levels” of freight passing through American seaports.

Davis began his post at AAPA nearly three and a half years ago, a few months before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to him, the pandemic taught them a lot of lessons. “[It] laid bare a lot of the weak points in the supply chain, many of which were in and around ports,” he said. 

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Davis said the pandemic also exposed lawmakers to what he dubbed “the criticality of supply chains and transportation infrastructure to our national economy and even to our national security.” 

One of AAPA’s priorities has been to attract attention to the critical role sea ports play, not only in the American supply chain, but also in job-creation and economic growth more broadly. Their primary focus is on ensuring that sea ports are funded to parity with land and air, modes of transportation that Davis said have historically been more “top of mind for politicians.” 

AAPA’s advocacy efforts have been highly effective. Last year saw the highest yield in federal investment in seaports and port-related infrastructure, representing a more than 400% jump in federal funding from 2014.

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Yet economic viability and port-related infrastructure are only two axes along which Davis and AAPA approach their advocacy work. Others include trade, national security, and environment and energy. 

In the summer of 2022, AAPA launched its POWERS Program (Port Opportunities with Energy, Resilience, and Sustainability), the goal of which – according to the POWERS website – is to enable lawmakers “to meet the twin challenges of energy security and climate change.” Within this framework, AAPA “advocates for federal policies to support American energy prowess, pragmatic decarbonization, technology for renewables, and environmental sustainability.” 

As Davis put it, “[the POWERS Program] boils down to seaports [being] the hubs of intermodal transport. They are by definition where everything comes together – the vessel, the ships, the barges, the heavy-duty equipment that moves the cargo, the trains, the trucks.” In other words, it’s about situating ports at the center of policy decisions aimed at reducing carbon emissions, increasing alternative fueling sources, and investing in green infrastructure. 

Davis’s and the AAPA’s advocacy work can be distilled down to a desire to shift the paradigm and increase the political salience of seaports. “When you can’t get baby formula, or you can’t get chips for your vehicles, or you can’t get weapons – many of which we import … there are existential problems that are created for our economy and for our national security,” said Davis.

When asked about what he’s hopeful for in the upcoming year, Davis replied, “I want to get ‘ship’ done.”

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