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Massive investments planned for Houston area ports

John Bleasby
Massive investments planned for Houston area ports
PORT FREEPORT — The Velasco Terminal expansion project will receive $16 million of federal government support to improve its onshore infrastructure.

The Texas economy is ranked eighth largest in the world at $2.4 trillion, ahead of Italy and Canada. The Texas Gulf Coast is an integral part of the state’s import-export economy.

It is therefore no surprise that seaports along the coast near Houston will be beneficiaries of federal support under President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion Investing in America infrastructure investment program. Over $650 million in grants to upgrade and improve 41 facilities have been awarded to water-based ports across the United States.

Velasco Terminal in Freeport was one of the major seaport projects named in the media release issued by the U.S. Transportation Department. Port Freeport is one of the leading exporters of crude oil and natural gas liquids in the country, with nearly 1,200 vessels using the facility in 2022 to transport 31.2 million tons of freight.

Aided by nearly $16 million of federal funds, the Velasco Terminal expansion project includes construction of a new 36,900-square-foot cross-dock warehouse and related site improvements on a roughly 10-acre site, the release said.  The cross-dock facility will enable cargo to be unloaded, sorted and reloaded onto trucks without interfering with other terminal traffic, thereby reducing congestion. Warehouse safety design elements include improved manoeuvring for forklifts, a new truck gate and new truck lanes off the adjacent roadway. Reducing truck turn times will improve productivity and enhance safety. 

Port Freeport itself is undergoing the widening and deepening of its ship channel as well. The $295 million project, including $65 million of federal support, will increase Freeport’s channel depth from 51 to 56 feet. The work is scheduled to be completed in 2025.

In making the port improvement announcements, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg spoke of supply chain challenges that started in 2021 and drove up prices as the United States recovered from the pandemic. He said the goal of the projects is to improve the infrastructure for ports so they can withstand the kinds of shocks seen during the pandemic.

“Our goal is to strengthen those supply chains in a durable fashion,” Buttigieg said. “Today’s announcement is another big step in that direction.”

Projects were selected based on their ability to improve the safety, efficiency or reliability of the movement of goods as well as how well they would improve port resilience.

Maritime administrator Ann Phillips also spoke of, “strengthening supply chain resiliency across all modes of transportation and addressing the negative impacts of port operations on public health and the environment that have harmed communities living near ports.”

A second port in the Houston area will also receive federal support under the same program.

At 15,000-acres, Cedar Port Industrial Park in nearby Baytown is the largest master-planned, rail- and barge-served industrial park in the United States and fifth-largest industrial park in the world, according to its website.

Improvements to Cedar Point’s facilities will include channel dredging adjacent to planned expansion and upgrades to the existing barge dock, an additional 800 feet of mooring space and six additional barge slots. The project will also see the construction of a “heavy haul road” to connect the barge dock to Cedar Port Industrial Park’s tenant area, according to a port fact sheet.

These expansion investments will further benefit from $1 billion of multi-phase improvements on the Port of Houston waterfront called Project 11. The Houston Ship Channel claims to be the most active waterway in the United States with more vessel traffic than the next three largest U.S. ports combined. The Project 11 expansion is said to be “the fastest, largest federal project that has ever been done.”

“Since 2010, the Port of Houston Authority has been planning the next major channel improvements working with Congress and the Corps of Engineers,” the port’s website says. “During that time, the growth in the size of vessels increasingly needing to transit the waterway along with the growth in the exports, imports, domestic manufacturing and energy products are creating significant demand and pressure on the Houston Ship Channel and regional infrastructure and driving the need to make improvements to this nationally significant waterway.”

Portions of the project were completed on budget earlier this year.

Other sections, including the Bayport Ship Channel will go out for bidding before year’s end. When completed in 2026, the Houston Ship Channel expansion will widen the channel along its Galveston Bay reach from 530 to 700 feet and deepen some upstream segments to 46.5 feet.

Along with various safety and efficiency improvements, the contract award includes the use of construction equipment expected to reduce NOx emissions by 38 per cent versus Tier 3 standards.

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