Captain’s Corner

Moving Forward in Unison

Captain Diehl, President,
Greater Houston      Port Bureau

I spent the first week of April in Washington, D.C., alongside leaders in the Houston maritime community advocating to members of Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers to invest the money to keep the Houston Ship Channel open for two-way traffic. I’ve been going to D.C. on advocacy trips for 10 years, but I believe the work we’re doing now is the most important advocacy I’ve helped with, as it will impact the Ship Channel and our region for decades to come.

The Economic Alliance organized this D.C. trip and did an excellent job of getting us facetime with as many congressional offices and agency leaders as possible in just a few short days. To do this we split into teams, and for most of my meetings I was teamed up with Port Bureau board member Robert Baker, ExxonMobil, to represent the maritime advocacy points. I attended eight meetings – you can read about who I met with and what we discussed on page 6 in the pdf of this issue.

There was one topic that stood above the rest – maintaining two-way traffic on the Houston Ship Channel. I’m sure you’ve read varying accounts of this in the news over the past few months, but most of the public discourse has been about how to address our short-term challenges. At the Port Bureau, we are focused on the bigger planning and funding picture of ensuring that the Houston Ship Channel is properly maintained to handle not just our current capacity demand, but our future growth as well.

What we are pushing our members to focus on—with urgency—is the Army Corps of Engineers mega study and to ensure that the study includes the entire Galveston Bay Reach of the Houston Ship Channel. The Corps has dropped a critical section of the channel from consideration for widening, which will create a bottleneck that every single vessel coming to and from the port of Houston will have to funnel through. This area is already constrained for our current traffic and failing to widen it will severely limit our ability to move the larger ships safely and efficiently.

How did this happen? During the evaluation process of the Army Corps of Engineers arbitrarily divided the bay reach into sections that have no safety, operational, or economic significance. The only justification for the split is that is how the dredging contracts are divided. By doing so, the Army Corps of Engineers created a false appearance that widening the channel from Redfish Island (near San Leon) to Morgan’s Point/Barbours Cut does not have sufficient benefit to cover the cost. If the Army Corps of Engineers Corps were to evaluate the bay reach as a whole or if they would consider safety or the appropriate economic factors, they would find a good benefit-to-cost ratio.

Another consequence of dropping this channel section from the study is that it also won’t be included in the environmental study, which is going to occur soon. Without the environmental study, it would take the local partners a couple of years to do it on their own before the channel section could ever be considered for widening.

The Port Bureau Board of Directors sent a letter to the Assistant Secretary of the Army, R.D. James, in February expressing their strong support of the Port of Houston Authority’s petition to include the entire bay reach in the full expansion plan. At the end of April, Mr. James sent a reply to the Port Authority and our Board of Directors denying this request. Despite this, we will continue to press for the only reasonable outcome – widening the entire bay reach of the Houston Ship Channel to 700+ feet. To make our point, we are emphasizing three critical issues to them.

First, Houston’s channel is the busiest in the U.S., and yet it is much narrower than other channels moving similar size vessels. For example, Norfolk was authorized to a 1400’ channel to enable safe movement of the same size container vessels we move. And, according to the Army Corps of Engineers own design manual, the Houston Ship Channel should be 742 feet wide just to support current traffic, not including the 1,100’ container vessels.

Second, to overcome the channel width limitations, the Houston Pilots are the ONLY U.S. pilots that must perform the meeting maneuver known as the Texas Chicken to maintain two-way traffic. This has been performed safely and successfully since 2000 and is a key reason the port of Houston has been able to continue to grow. However, that is changing. Current ship sizes have exceeded the physical limitations of performing the Texas Chicken maneuver and are causing one-way traffic.

Third, fifteen percent of U.S. exports leave through the port of Houston, and the safety and resiliency of this waterway are of national importance. The only long-term solution is to widen the channel.

The Port Bureau will work together with industry stakeholders to determine the next steps to continue the fighting for the port of Houston’s future. Industry will need to move forward in unison and urgency if we hope to be successful.

  • Date June 3, 2019
  • Tags 2019 May