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Port congestion? Maybe Houston is the alternative

Houston, Dallas, San Antonio market seeing demand for imports from Asia

Port Houston's No. 1 trading partner in January was China, accounting for $1.3 billion. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves at Port Houston)

Port Houston is positioning itself as a viable option for handling more containerized imports from Asia, thanks to congestion woes for importers on the West and East coasts.

Austin, Texas-based cooler and drink ware manufacturer Yeti (NYSE: YETI) is testing Port Houston as an alternative to the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach or Port of New York/New Jersey for importing its shipments from Asia, according to Paul Carbone, Yeti’s CFO. 

“We’re seeing some elongated wait times coming through the ports in the process of shipments,” Carbone said during Bank of America’s 2021 Consumer and Retail Technology Conference on March 9. 

To mitigate wait times and supply chain risks, Carbone said Yeti is cross-docking its shipments, using some different shipping lanes, and using faster shipping lanes out of Southeast Asia “to cut down on the transport time.”

“Lastly, we’re testing some alternative ports, but we haven’t even started that,” Carbone said. “Port Houston is right down from our Dallas-Fort Worth distribution center. So we’re going to send some ships into there; it’s a smaller port, we don’t want that to get overrun. So we’re testing that.”

West Coast ports such the Port of Los Angeles still handle a large share of containerized goods coming into the country from Asia, but Houston and other Gulf Coast ports have been pulling more market share from Asia, port officials said.

“It is an indication of the desire of retailers to use Houston from Asia as a route versus other alternatives,” Roger Guenther, executive director for Port of Houston Authority, told FreightWaves. “It’s indicative of our volume that continues to grow from Asia, through the Panama Canal into Houston.” 

Other retailers that utilize Port Houston as an import gateway include Walmart (NYSE: WMT), IKEA, Ross Stores Inc. (NASDAQ: ROST) and Lowe’s Companies Inc. (NYSE: LOW).

FreightWaves SONAR data on maritime import customs filings at Port Houston show the port is up for the month of March over the same period in 2019 and 2020.

FreightWaves SONAR chart ICSTM.USHOU

Port Houston manages the eight public terminals that make up the more than 200 terminals – most of them private – along the Port of Houston. The Port of Houston is 25 miles of the 52-mile long Houston Ship Channel, a federal waterway.

During 2020, the Houston Ship Channel was ranked the busiest waterway in terms of tonnage by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. More vessels call the port than the ports of LA/Long Beach, New Jersey and New York combined, port officials said.

Due to lack of power and water, Port Houston’s terminals and truck facilities were closed Feb. 15-19. The closures included the Bayport and Barbours Cut container terminals and Turning Basin Terminal. 

Container activity at the port was down 28% to 198,763 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in February 2021, compared to February 2020, when it handled 255,474 TEUs.

Guenther said Port Houston weathered the COVID-19 pandemic for most of 2020 while continuing to see “a tremendous demand of import cargo.”

“We have certainly been positively impacted by more import cargo from retailers as well in Houston,” Guenther said. “The growth in all-water freight from Asia to Houston is our fastest-growing trade route.”

Guenther said several years ago Port Houston’s all-water services from Asia was small; now Asia to Houston is approaching “half of our import business.”

China was the top trading partner for Port Houston in January, accounting for $1.3 billion in trade, according to U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by WorldCity.

Port of Houston’s top trade partners were No. 1 China, No. 2 Brazil, No. 3 Japan, No. 4 Mexico and No. 5 Germany. In January 2020, the top trade partners were Mexico, China, Brazil, South Korea and Japan.

Port Houston will be the first U.S. port of call in THE Alliance’s new direct Asia service, which will begin in Kaohsiung, China, and reach the U.S. Gulf Coast through the Panama Canal.

The EC6 service, which will launch by May, will call the Chinese ports of Hong Kong, Yantian, Ningbo, Shanghai and Pusan, South Korea, before sailing through the Panama Canal to Houston. The service will then make stops in New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, before returning to Kaohsiung.

“The Houston, Dallas, San Antonio market is a huge market. There’s a huge demand for imports into our region,” Guenther said. “Houston provides a supply chain that has certainly competitively improved with some of the congestion that they’re having in other ports.”

Port Houston is also moving forward with Project 11, a major capacity expansion to widen the shipping channel by 170 feet to 700 feet along Galveston Bay and deepen upstream segments of the channel to 45 feet.

The Houston Ship Channel is being expanded to accommodate larger container ships, as well as ships carrying petrochemical products. 

“Project 11 is important to allow for larger ships and create an even more favorable competitive environment for Houston and the Gulf Coast,” Guenther said. “We’re an operating port, which allows us to drive the customer service experience, working with not only the carriers, but the retailers or whoever that makes for a consistent and reliable service into Houston as well as a competitive alternative to other ports.”

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Noi Mahoney

Noi Mahoney is a Texas-based journalist who covers cross-border trade, logistics and supply chains for FreightWaves. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in English in 1998. Mahoney has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working for newspapers in Maryland and Texas. Contact [email protected]