Houston Ship Channel expansion project accelerated

Port of Houston container terminal. Credit: Port of Houston

The port of Houston Authority is looking to accelerate a USD1 billion project to widen the Houston Ship Channel to attract finance and support from area businesses to complete the project six years earlier than expected.

The agency has also approved a USD5.5 million engineering contract for the project, less than a month after a new Texas law took effect prohibiting entry of ships larger than about 9,500 teu – from the ship channel unless 80 % of the port pilots give their approval.

The description of the work approved indicates it will be followed by a broad package of engineering and construction contracts launched in October. Port officials believe if they can forge public-private partnerships with large enterprises to help fund the project, rather than relying solely on federal funds, they can complete work by 2024 instead of the expected date in 2030.

The board is looking to start dredging as early as 2021. The widening project will expand the channel from 161 m to 214 feet along an approximately 18-km stretch of the waterway. The work would allow vessels of up to 13,000–14,000 TEU teu transit while there is a second vessel in the channel.

The expansion project has taken on urgency since the law on vessel size in the key Houston Ship Channel took effect in September. But the port says the new law will have minimal impact in the short term, in large part because prior to the limitation, only one carrier – Mediterranean Shipping – entered the channel with a ship of that size, which leads to a rate of about one vessel per month.

Henry de La Garza, a spokesperson for the Houston Pilots Association, said no carriers have sought permission for a vessel larger than 1,100 feet to enter the channel in the weeks since the law took effect. The legislation limiting the size of vessels that could enter the channel without pilot approval was triggered by concerns among non-container port users – most notably from the energy industry – that the ever-growing size of container ships calling Houston was disrupting the ability of other vessels to transit in an efficient manner.

That concern has been heightened by the port’s rapid growth. Loaded cargo through Houston increased 13.5 % in the first half of 2019, to 1.2 million teu, over the same period in 2018, according IHS Markit data. This gain was greater than any other large port in the United States, except the Port of Mobile, Alabama.