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You may not know that the ports of Galveston and Houston are among the busiest in the nation.  We also have the distinction that unlike other ports, we export more than we import (approximately 52% exports/ 48% imports).  About 70% of the traffic in the Houston Ship Channel is generated by the petrochemical industry. 

The Channel can handle 8,000–9,000 fully loaded TEU (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units) container ships. The challenge comes when these larger container ships come to call.  Although it’s cheaper to have more containers on a single ship than it is to have multiple smaller vessels, the challenge comes when the larger ships arrive and their capacity crowds other ship traffic. Our Channel is already notorious for the need to play “chicken” with two way traffic in order to accommodate our extensive/diverse trade; when the larger container vessels are introduced the situation gets worse. So there’s room to maneuver/turn them within the Channel/Turning Basin, the Port of Houston and their counterparts have been negotiating to limit the larger vessels to one per week. This only limits the future growth of our ports.

Because the new deeper and wider Panama Canal, mega ships capable of handling up to 14,400 TEUs can now transit the Canal.  Meanwhile over thirty container vessels that exceed 20,000 TEU container capability are under construction.

Much of our nation’s container traffic arrives on the West Coast and heads into the heartland hubs like Dallas/Fort Worth.   Some of the empty containers are routed to us where they are filled with polymer pellets and other products for export.  With the new Panama Canal, Houston/Galveston could be the Gateway to Mid-America  not just from the greater Houston area.

To accommodate this trade our Channel needs to be deepened and widened, but doing this is going to take years to accomplish.  Meanwhile our ports are not “the only show in town”! Savannah, Georgia isn’t that much further than we are from the Canal.  It has a deep channel, rail infrastructure to move product inland, and the political will to entice more and larger ships. It’s clear that if we are to be competitive we need to do some forward thinking and have the potential stakeholders pull together. We need to devise and examine all the alternate scenario-based models for this potential.

Foremost would be to develop Pelican Island. This will take time, money, planning and setting aside short-sighted needs for instant gratification.  In the long run, having a deep water port that doesn’t require a twelve hour trip up and down the channel could be extremely attractive, economical, and profitable.  But doing so is going to take a lot of effort and political will.  

First, the Port of Houston – which owns a big portion of Pelican Island – will need to be willing to allow the development of this port on its land.  Second, there would need to be rail access to Pelican Island and yes, a rail bridge.

In the long run it makes economic sense to develop Pelican Island into a mega deepwater container port.  One can only hope and encourage leaders to step up and consider doing this.

Author and Columnist
Photo of Bill (Sarge) Sargent
April 25, 2019