News & Updates: Port Bureau News: Dec. '19/Jan. '20

Port Watch: The Old College Try

Monday, February 3, 2020  
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By Tom Marian, Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.

Over a century ago, the manager of the New York Giants – John McGraw – marveled at the heroics of a young outfielder as the rookie exerted Herculean efforts to intercept an unreachable fly ball. As the batter rounded the bases following his homerun, McGraw opined, “That’s the eye, young fellow. The old college try.” Such was the case for the majority of Texas ports as they fell just short of exceeding 2018’s arrival count.

Granted, by all accounts, the final month of the decade was worth crowing about. The total number of arrivals throughout Texas ports ended the year in positive territory after a robust 7.8% monthly increase resulting in a year-over-year gain of 1.7%. Indeed, every port but one finished the year on a strong note. Of particular note, were the inland tow movements which spent the bulk of the year well below the 12,000 mark. December’s tow tally exceeded November’s by 4% and was a scant .007% below the highest month of the year which took place in January 2019. Unfortunately, despite this monthly rebound, inland tow movements fell 7% below last year’s count.

The only port that could not celebrate a December gain was Brownsville. The port that resides at the southern terminus of the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway experienced a fretful 36% arrival plummet which all but guaranteed 2019 would finish below 2018’s total by nearly 7%. Mind you, its year-over-year percentage was not quite at the bottom of the barrel. Port Lavaca ended the decade with an annual drop of over 9% after posting a monthly gain of 10.5%. Interestingly, both ports had nearly identical arrival numbers for 2019.

Three ports yielded their highest vessel counts of the year as Father Time ushered 2019 from the temporal stage. Corpus Christi knocked the ball out of the park with an 11% monthly gain. This placed the port’s arrival account almost 5% higher than that of 2018. In fact, the port of Corpus Christi had one of its best quarters in its history and stands to begin the new decade with much promise and more commerce. Likewise, the port of Freeport finished the year by shattering its monthly vessel arrival count with a 19% increase. Freeport ended the year with the 2nd highest percentage gain amongst Texas ports at just over 11%.

If Freeport was second, who was first? Not surprisingly, the former home of Jean Lafitte – the Port of Galveston – took top honors with a 24.3% besting of 2018’s arrival count after its most recent 20.4% monthly gain. Throughout the year, Galveston has capitalized on its availability of berthing so that vessels awaiting berth in Houston were not forced to anchor beyond the sea buoy. The port has nearly quadrupled it lay berth revenue over the last year due to its aggressive marketing of formerly under-utilized dock space. A wise move in a region where vessel congestion is legion.

Texas City, on the other hand, has also experienced an excess of dock space but its situation is not being caused by a languishing offshore drilling environment. Instead, pipelines have displaced many a vessel call by nearly 6% during this most recent year. On a positive note, December’s vessel arrival picture for Texas City was a tad above that of the previous month. The port of Sabine could also celebrate a strong finish to a year that nearly equaled 2018’s arrivals. It’s monthly percentage rise of over 8% was not enough to push its 2019 numbers above that of the prior year. The good news is that it lagged 2018’s outcome by less than 1%. Thus, underscoring that Sabine’s fundamentals are strong and 2020 should at least keep pace with 2019.

Of the five Texas ports that failed to exceed 2018’s vessel counts, Houston – percentage wise – tried harder than no other. In December, the port welcomed nearly 6% more arrivals. A couple of noteworthy aspects of its December’s statistics is the fact that 23% more tankers sailed into the port compared to November. LPG moves were up 4% for the month and 1% for the year. Chemical tankers were off by roughly one-half of 1% on a monthly basis but enjoyed a healthy 5.5% climb over last year’s figures. General cargo waned 2% over the last month and 3% against last year; however, bulkers enjoyed a 4% year-over-year rise despite a final monthly drop of over 9%.

Car carriers ended the year on a low note of 6 total vessels resulting in 2019 closing out its books 23% below that of 2018. Container vessel calls were up a scintilla over the last month. Yet, when the ledger book was closed, 8% more vessels offloaded 11% more containers in the port in 2019. Full export containers were up handsomely for the year by 17% compared to full imports which grew 5% . When the final container crossed the docks just prior to the midnight chimes ushering in a new decade, full export containers outpaced full imports by a scant 0.016%! No doubt, imports gave it the old college try to displace exports as the dominant container move.

The old college try certainly reaped positive numbers for Galveston, Corpus Christi and Freeport but Houston, like that exhausted New York Giants rookie outfielder, could do nothing more than watch 2019 fail to catch 2018. Perhaps that is somewhat reminiscent of the Astros performance in game 7 of the 2019 World Series or how the Buffalo Bills felt after its overtime loss to the Houston Texans. Yet, as all athletes know……you play to the buzzer!


About the Author

Tom Marian is the General Counsel of Buffalo Marine Service, Inc. He also serves on the Executive Committee of the Port Bureau Board of Directors.