Posted on November 17, 2021
The $1.1 billion Houston Ship Channel expansion dubbed “Project 11” began in the first half of 2021 in an effort to speed up a deepening and widening project to accommodate bigger ships, Roger Guenther, executive director of Port Houston, said.
Guenther told a monthly gathering of the Port Houston Bureau, a trade group representing operators along the channel, that the amount of ships that traverse the waterway from 2013 to 2019 grew 1%, but the size of vessels grew 27%, from larger container ships to tankers.
“They’re not necessarily growing in number but they’re growing in size,” he said.
In August, Port Houston signed an agreement with the US Army Corps of Engineers for the project with a faster timeline than is typical for such major work that could be finished by 2025.
The project involves widening the channel to 700 feet from 530 feet for its first 26 miles, which would allow ships to traverse in and out next to each other like cars traveling in opposite directions on a highway. It also plans for deepening the channel to 46.5 feet from its current 45 feet.
The current width is too narrow for traditional two-way traffic. Ships going in opposite directions currently veer around each other in an orchestrated move overseen by the Houston Pilots known as the “Texas Chicken.”
In August 2018, the first-ever container ship to exceed 1,100 feet in length entered the 23-mile stretch of the channel between its entrance near Texas City and the port’s two container terminals. The pilots, who are the arbiters of ship traffic and safety in the channel, determined that tankers could not safely veer around those larger container ships, so they had to wait until a container ship of that size had docked or exited the channel to move.
The issue generated some tension in 2019 between companies whose operations rely on liquids tankers and the port, which operates the container terminals. But in August 2019, a new Texas law aimed and preserving consistent two-way traffic in the channel went into effect, requiring larger container ships to secure approval from a board of pilot commissioners independent of the port before they enter the channel.
Ship channel operators and the port then turned their full attention to the widening and deepening project.
“We have to have it,” Guenther said. “We have to have it quickly. And it’s got to be funded.”
Congress authorized project in late 2020
Congress authorized the project in December 2020, and the port worked with the Army Corps to speed up the construction and dredging schedule, with industry participants agreeing to help cover the cost.
If the port relied on Congress to provide most of the funding, allocations have to be approved each year, and projects can take a decade or more. Project 10, the last major project that dredged the channel to its current 45-foot depth, cost $750 million over 37 years, Guenther said.
Of the entire 52-mile length of the channel, Port Houston makes up about 25 miles home to more than 200 private companies and public terminals.
About 74% of vessels that enter and leave the ship channel carry liquid bulk like crude oil or refined products and 18% is containerized cargo, according to port statistics.
Resins and plastics are by far the top containerized exports out of Houston, port statistics also show. In 2020, the port exported 519,873 twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs, of those materials, which was 43.4% of 1.197 million TEUs shipped out.
“One out of three boxes exported is some kind of plastic resin,” Guenther said.