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Port Houston: Bigger ships need wider channel

Gateway officials say major driver of Texas economy needs more room to work

Port Houston hopes to begin work on widening the shipping channel next year. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Port Houston officials say widening of the shipping channel is necessary to accommodate increasingly bigger vessels and maintain its status as a big driver of the Texas economy.

“When you add it all up, the ship channel area is really responsible for 1.35 million jobs in Texas, over 3 million nationwide, $339 billion in economic impact … in the state and $800 billion nationwide. And if you think about the GDP of the state of Texas, it’s about $1.4 trillion and so the impact of the ship channel is a big chunk, maybe 20%, of that GDP number,” said Rich Byrnes, Port Houston’s chief port infrastructure officer, during a webinar Thursday.

“We are the biggest foreign waterborne tonnage port in the country,” Byrnes continued. “We are the No. 1 energy, petrochemical and manufacturing center in the country and perhaps the world [and] the No. 1 steel and project cargo [port].”

Although Port Houston is ranked as the No. 6 container port in the country, it is “the port for containers and general cargo on the U.S. Gulf Coast,” he said. 

The existing ship channel is 530 feet wide, and it’s not easy for two 150-foot-wide ships to pass, Byrnes said. “We do need to expand the size of the channel to accommodate the increasing size of the vessels so we can continue to support the growth.”

The Army Corps of Engineers in April signed off on a five-year, $10 million feasibility study, and Lori Brownell, Port Houston’s director of channel improvement, said Thursday the aim is for the widening work to begin next year.

A completion date and total cost were not provided Thursday, but a project overview said the work, which could be at least partially funded through the Water Resources Development Act, will include widening the channel by 170 feet to 700 feet along Galveston Bay. Upstream segments of the channel also will be deepened to 45 feet. 

A wider shipping channel is just part of Port Houston’s vision for the future. Rohit Saxena, director of facility planning, said Thursday the port commission is expected to adopt a long-range plan this fall. 

“It’s a comprehensive blueprint for the growth and development of Port Houston over the next 20 years,” he said, noting that the plan was put together “during a year of uncertainties.”

“The 2040 plan is a marathon, not a sprint,” Saxena added.

This year has felt like a marathon for many in the port industry. Like all U.S. ports, volumes at Port Houston were negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. But there were signs of recovery in August. 

Port Houston said its container activity in August neared 2019’s record volume levels for the first time since the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic began to be felt early this year. The port handled 248,630 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in August, only 4% less than the same month last year. 

This also reflects a 5.9% gain over July of this year, when Houston handled 234,737 TEUs, and the port said shows a significant increase in container volume as compared to the previous several months. Declines in March through July ranged from 10% to 16%. 

“We are hopeful for a strong rebound in the fourth quarter and that this is the beginning of continued growth in our container TEUs,” Port Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther said in a statement last week. “Import containers have been strong and we’ve seen a large number of extra loaders this peak season as retailers in our region replenish inventories, and those extra loaders have helped balance the impact of blank sailings.”

For the first six months of this year, container volumes declined just 2.3% year-over-year, according to Port Houston, which said data from PIERS indicated it had the smallest decline of the top 10 container ports in the United States.

“As we look ahead, we are ready for future growth,” Guenther said. “Port Houston’s fundamentals remain solid, there’s been strong activity in construction and expansion of e-commerce distribution centers that support imports and also resin packaging capacity to support exports.”

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Click for more American Shipper/FreightWaves stories by Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills.

Kim Link Wills

Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills has written about everything from agriculture as a reporter for Illinois Agri-News to zoology as editor of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. Her work has garnered awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Magazine Association of the Southeast. Prior to serving as managing editor of American Shipper, Kim spent more than four years with XPO Logistics.