Port of Houston forges ahead with crucial channel projects
By Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT
Some things just can’t wait.
Such is the case at the Port of Houston, where channel enhancements right up to containership berths are moving ahead without a decade-long wait for federal funding.
The push to complete final-mile deepening to 45 feet, as well as widening, between the main Houston Ship Channel and docks at both the Port of Houston Authority’s venerable Barbours Cut Container Terminal and its more recently opened Bayport Container Terminal is forging ahead without federal assistance so that the No. 1 U.S. foreign tonnage port can safely accommodate the larger containerships anticipated to call after completion of Panama Canal expansion.
Indeed, the Port of Houston already is servicing vessels in the capacity range of 8,400 twenty-foot-equivalent units – ships too large to transit the present Panama Canal – noted Len Waterworth, the port’s executive director, who said the channel work is needed so port facilities can handle 10,000-TEU vessels by the time the canal expansion project is completed.
Port of Houston Authority Executive Director Len Waterworth sees dredging projects as essential to lowering logistics costs. (Photo by Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT)
“Dredging is very important to us as we try to drive down the overall logistics chain cost,” Waterworth said when the American Journal of Transportation caught up with him Oct. 25 at the American Association of Port Authorities’ convention in Mobile, Ala.
Waterworth knows more than a little about dredging, having served a half a decade as commander of the Galveston District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before retiring from the Army with the rank of colonel, then spending seven years as president and chief executive officer of Houston-based Dannenbaum Engineering prior to coming aboard at the Port of Houston Authority in early 2012.
By proceeding without the help of federal funds to dredge the last mile or so to Barbours Cut berths and the final approximately two miles to Bayport berths, the Port of Houston should be ready to accommodate 10,000-TEU vessels well before the Panama Canal project is completed, according to Waterworth, who noted that the canal endeavor is now targeted for early 2015 completion, while the estimated completion dates for the Barbours Cut and Bayport dredging work, respectively, are July 2014 and December 2014.
The Barbours Cut and Bayport dredging undertakings are critical not just to the Port of Houston but also to the nation as a whole, Waterworth said, commenting, “I think we’ll lead the entire nation out of the recession right in Houston, Texas. If people aren’t doing business in Houston, they will be.”
Waterworth noted that Houston is home to the largest U.S. petrochemical complex and that, with some 1,000 people a day moving to Texas, the Houston region is quickly moving toward becoming the third-most-populous in the nation from its current No. 4 ranking.
The importance of the container terminal dredging far outweighs the costs – $100 million for the Bayport work and between $8 million and $12 million for the Barbours Cut project – said Rusty Kunz, the Port of Houston Authority’s vice president of trade development and marketing.
Dredging units such as this, seen in use on an earlier Houston Ship Channel project, are to be deployed to bring 45-foot depths to the final miles of water before Port of Houston container terminal berths.
“Even if the [Panama] Canal were not being widened and deepened, we’d have to be doing this anyway,” Kunz said. “If we were to go through the normal processes, as I understand, and wait for federal funds to take these channels to 45 feet, the timeframe would probably be 10-plus years. We can’t wait.”
The final-mile dredging augments the federal Houston Ship Channel work, which in 2005 brought the main channel to 45-foot depth along a 52-mile stretch from near the Gulf of Mexico at Galveston Bay to within 7 miles of downtown Houston.
At its Oct. 23 meeting, the Port of Houston Authority Commission approved the Barbours Cut channel development proposal for submission to the Corps of Engineers, with hopes for permit receipt by April 2013. The permit application for the Bayport work was submitted to the Corps of Engineers in December 2011, with anticipated permitting in December of this year.
In addition to providing 45-foot depths (5 feet deeper than at present), plus advance maintenance and overdredging, the projects at both terminals are designed to widen berth areas. At Barbours Cut, the berthing pocket is to be widened to 225 feet from 150 feet, with the dockfront navigation channel remaining at 300 feet, while the Bayport project calls for widening the open-water area to 400 feet from 300 feet and widening the channel in the land cut to 350 feet from 300 feet.
Both the Barbours Cut facility, which initially opened in 1977 and which continues to undergo modernization, and the leading-edge Bayport terminal, the first phase of which entered service in 2007, are relied upon to efficiently handle volumes that, according to port officials, combine to account for about 70 percent of all containerized cargo activity in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico.
“We are really making every effort to ensure that everyone – from legislators to the Corps to the community – understands fully the importance of the Houston Ship Channel and what it means to this nation,” said Lisa Ashley, the port’s director of corporate communications.
In one of the most recent developments in that regard, Mark Mazzanti, chief of the programs integration division for civil works at the Corps of Engineers, took a tour of the Port of Houston on Oct. 17, receiving briefings not just from port officials but also from petrochemical industry representatives and the Houston Pilots.