Study to expand Houston Ship Channel Underway

The Army Corps of Engineers and the Port of Houston Authority (PHA) are undertaking a feasibility study on expanding the Houston Ship Channel (HSC), known as the Houston Ship Channel 45- Foot Expansion Channel Improvement Project (HSC ECIP). This study was authorized by WRRDA 2014 as a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study of the federal channel. The PHA as the local sponsor will work with the Army Corps on the project and provide a 50% cost-share.

Background: 3x3x3 Rule and SMART Planning
In a 2012 memo, then-Commander Major General Michael Walsh issued guidance on a new feasibility study paradigm to modernize the Army Corps’ planning processes. The so-called “3x3x3 rule” sets the goals for a project to be accomplished in three years or less, for a cost of $3 million or less, and with three levels of vertical coordination (i.e., the District, Division, and Headquarters levels of the Corps coordinate simultaneously rather than sequentially). Additionally, the final report should be 100 pages or less. This change was implemented to ensure that feasibility studies would be completed in a timely and cost-effective fashion.

The Corps’ method for achieving these goals is SMART planning, an acronym for specific, measurable, attainable, risk-informed, and timely, designed to shift the planning processes and outputs from task-focused to decision-focused.

Some projects are too complicated to be accomplished within the specified time and budget of the 3x3x3 specifications, however, and the HSC study is one of them. The HSC study received an exemption from the Deputy Commanding General for Civil and Emergency Operations to increase the timeline to four years and the budget to $10 million, but it will still use three levels of vertical coordination and adhere to the SMART planning process.

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The HSC Study
The scoping stage of the study began in early 2016. The project will look at six regions of the HSC: I-610 Bridge to Turning Basin; Sims Bayou to the I-610 Bridge; Boggy Bayou to Sims Bayou; Bayport Ship Channel; Barbours Cut Ship Channel; and Bay-reach safety and efficiency. Dividing the channel project into separable segments will allow work authorized by the completed study to be performed in stages as funding and resources allow, as opposed to working on the entire channel at once.

A key restriction for this study is that it will not evaluate any deepening past the current federal channel of 45 feet. The underwater topography of the Gulf of Mexico is shallow with a gradual decline. The Houston Ship Channel joins with the Galveston Harbor and Extended Entrance Channel at Bolivar Roads to extend miles offshore to naturally deep waters so that vessels can enter it from open water. The Houston Pilots show the distance traveled from the sea buoy to the Turning Basin to be 58.9 nautical miles (approximately 67.8 miles). Deepening the Houston Ship Channel to 50 feet to match the new Panama Canal locks would require the channel to be extended an additional 11 miles until the ocean floor slopes to naturally meet that depth. Back of the envelope calculations put the cost of this operation to be in the billions of dollars to dredge, let alone maintain, which was determined to be infeasible at this time.

Channel Improvements Under Consideration
The two uppermost study sections of the HSC, I-610 Bridge to Turning Basin and Sims Bayou to the I-610 Bridge, will be evaluated for deepening, widening, and navigation improvements. This may include deepening past the current 36-foot depth, widening the channel, and re-evaluating the dimensions of the Turning Basin.

Boggy Bayou to Sims Bayou is currently designed to be 40 feet deep and 300 feet wide. Potential improvements for this section are deepening beyond 40 feet, increasing the width, and improvements to the turning and mooring areas. One of the main obstacles for this section is the Washburn Tunnel, almost equidistance between Beltway 8 and I-610, which was built under the channel at a depth of 45 feet.

Bayport Ship Channel and Barbours Cut Ship Channel, the two channels leading to the PHA container terminals and some private facilities, are authorized at 40 feet. However, the PHA has authority under 33 U.S.C. Section 408 to deepen the channels to 45 feet to match the depth of the Houston, and PHA has exercised this authority. The deepening of Barbours Cut to 45 feet was completed in September 2015, and Bayport deepening to 45 feet and selective widening is anticipated to be completed in late 2016. The navigation study will determine if these projects will be included in Federal authorization, as well as consider further improvements, such as additional widening, jetties to reduce shoaling, and flare improvements.

The final section, bay-reach safety and efficiency through the 45-foot channel, will be evaluated for a variety of navigation and safety improvements. Modifications currently under consideration include: selectively widening the narrow 530-foot channel to improve vessel passing and meeting conditions, developing a mid-bay anchorage, deepening the barge lines on the outside edges of the channel, and straightening or improving turns and bends in the channel.

The Army Corps is hosting two public scoping sessions in mid-May to inform the public about the study and to receive public comments. More information about the study and the public meetings can be found at: http://www.swg.usace.army.mil/Missions/Projects/HoustonShipChannelExpansion.aspx.

  • Date May 10, 2016
  • Tags May 2016