While the Port of Houston is banking on large-scale projects that deepen channels, and add post-Panamex cranes to help it secure more container traffic post-Panama Canal expansion, the Gulf’s largest port hasn’t turned its back on breakbulk and project cargo. Here, though, the results are mixed.
Houston is North America’s largest breakbulk and project cargo port complex. In the first two months of 2017, general cargo has remained flat, according to Jeff Davis, chief port operations officer. And the port hasn’t seen any breakbulk traffic pickup as a result of the Panama Canal expansion, he said.
The Port last November forecast containerized freight would increase almost 9% this year and another 8% in 2018, after a 17% increase in 2016. Meanwhile, a collapse in the demand for steel pipe used in oil and gas drilling caused steel-related cargo to plummet by more than half in 2016, after a steep drop in 2015. This year, it’s predicted to be essentially flat.
Automobile-related cargo declined slightly last year and is expected to remain flat in 2017. Other general cargo showed slight gains last year, with modest increases this year and a flat 2018.
Last year, the port invested a total of $236 million. Of this, $184 million was invested on container-related investments, while the Turning Basin general cargo terminal received only $20 million. This year, $73 million in capital improvements has been slated, with another $260 million allocated for 2018. Most will be spent on the Barbours Cut and Bayport container terminals, which also received the lion’s share of capital investment last year.
According to Davis, imported steel drives much of the port’s breakbulk activities, although, figures reveal, it’s been a miserable couple years for the products. “Steel products such as pipe, slabs, and coils will continue to be a staple of our non-containerized cargo,” Davis said in an email exchange.
However, the port’s new 18-acre breakbulk yard, opened in 2015, was prompted by demand for project cargo, most notably giant wind turbines, Davis said. Texas has emerged the country’s largest wind energy producer. The yard was constructed adjacent to an existing 15-acre yard.
In addition, the port repurposed an existing cruise facility in Bayport as an automobile terminal, which opened for business in November 2016. The cruise terminal was beset by losses from the time it opened in 2008.
“Demand drove the decision for auto processing and distribution facilities,” Davis said.