A bill to provide a modest revolving loan fund for Texas ports had smooth sailing through the Senate Transportation Committee last week, setting it on a positive course as it heads to the full Senate for consideration.
Senate Bill 28, sponsored by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, puts action behind a port study completed by the Texas Department of Transportation task force since the 2015 legislative session ended. The bill, which passed through the Senate committee with an 8-0 vote, designates as much as $20 million per year to supplement existing dredging and road projects around state ports.
The bill carries some weight, considering how important exports are to the state's economy. According to the Texas Ports Association, Texas is the nation’s biggest exporting state, with 563 million tons of cargo traveling through Texas ports each year. The industry is tied to 1.5 million jobs and $369 billion annually in economic activity in Texas, which has worried officials in many Texas cities considering the Trump administration's campaign promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Freeport, about 60 miles south of Houston, is positioning itself as part of the feeder system of cargo movement spurred by the newly expanded Panama Canal, said Port of Freeport CEO Phyllis Saathoff. The Port of Freeport, created in 1927, opened a new container terminal in 2014. A major dredging project, to take the port from 45 to 55 feet in depth to accommodate larger container ships, is expected to start in two years, potentially doubling or even tripling container traffic, as the Container News noted in a 2016 report.
“It takes more than a decade to get authorized,” Saathoff said of the project. “Any state assistance is going to be appreciated.”
The Texas Department of Transportation would be charged with administering the loan fund if Creighton’s bill passes both chambers. According to the bill, only those dredging projects approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be eligible for the funding.
Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said the funding of port expansion will be critical to future trade. Right now, Mexico is adding a super highway from the country’s west to east coast, simply to take advantage of cheaper transportation options on the east coast, he said.
“This is really going in the right direction to improve and help the ports,” Hinojosa said. “With the Panama Canal, there will be a slew of increases in private products.”
Lobbyist Keith Strama, representing the Sabine-Neches Navigation District, called the revolving loan fund an “elegant” solution to infrastructure needs.
“We can pay for it, but we don’t necessarily have the tax base to pay for it immediately,” Strama said. “With access to state money, we can pay it back over time.”