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Experts: More ship traffic warrants channel improvements

Millions of dollars in cargo chugs its way through the Port of Corpus Christi's waters on any given day.

From petroleum to textiles, from wind turbine parts to grain, you name it.

If it's headed in, out or through the Coastal Bend, chances are it'll sail over waters that feature the iconic Harbor Bridge posing in the background.

But the nation's fifth largest port is facing a major problem — the ships that come here are getting bigger, and the channel isn't. It has to grow with the times, experts say.

And that takes money.

The idea of deepening and widening the Corpus Christi Ship Channel has been on the books for years. It's even received support from Congress. But the funding was never there. Now, as the port wrestles with fast-climbing vessel traffic, experts think things are favoring its case for the estimated $350 million for the cost of the channel project either this year or next.

Or at least they hope so.

Navigating through the narrow ship channel can be treacherous. Some choke points in the channel are less than 400 feet wide, making simultaneous two-way traffic risky, if not impossible. Port officials want to widen the channel to 530 feet from Port Aransas to the Harbor Bridge.

They also hope to deepen it from 45 feet to 52 feet, giving super sized tankers access to their docks.

"It's simple — the bigger the ships (companies use), the more money they're going to make," said Wayne Squires, a port commissioner. "But we're limited by the 45 (foot depth)."

In 1990, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin investigating the possibility of deepening to accommodate larger vessels, increase shipping efficiency, and enhance navigation safety.

Congress approved channel improvements for the port. Twice, in fact — in 2007 and 2014. At neither time was the the money needed to do the work ever allocated.

The channel project most recently was left off the Corps of Engineers' funding list in 2016. The Port Authority in recent months approved $2.1 million contracts to hire consultants to conduct sediment testing and other studies until more funding can be found.

The Port of Corpus Christi (Photo: Contributed Photo)

Crude is still king

More priority may have been given to other projects in the past, but the port's chances at channel funding may be different, if not more favorable now, said Hans Schumann, an economics professor at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

For one thing, the nearby Eagle Ford Shale energy play continues to be a magnet for industrial businesses.

Despite a downturn the past two years in crude prices, vessel traffic heading in and out of the port remained heavy — literally.

A record 103.5 million tons of cargo, most of it petroleum, sailed through the port on more than 7,500 vessels in 2015. Yet, port officials predict vessel traffic at the port in 2016 dipped for the first time since 2011. At the same time, they also project the weight of their shipments will match, if not exceed that of 2015.

What that tells them is that energy companies are trying to trim expenses by using larger vessels to carry their wares.

"Deepening and widening the channel, at this point, makes us one step more attractive to industries," Schumann said.

The Corps of Engineers typically announces the projects it will fund in early February. So anticipation is high.

Supramax and handymax vessels, which carry up to 60,000 tons and 35,000 tons of cargo, respectively, are pretty common sights in the port's waters. "Mini" capsize ships can haul between 80,000 and 100,000 tons, and also are becoming fixtures.

Larger Panamax-class ships, a variety of mid-sized cargo vessels that measure roughly 960 feet in length and nearly 200 feet wide, also have been seen here occasionally. They are handled at the port’s bulk terminal.

All of them are able to navigate the port's 43-foot-deep water.

Ships larger than that, however, can't. They typically require a minimum 50-foot draft to maneuver.

There are 60 ports in North America equipped to handle Panamax-class ships. Six are in the Gulf of Mexico — Corpus Christi, and the ports of Houston, Galveston, Beaumont, Mobile and New Orleans.

None are 50 feet deep.

International pressures

The Panama Canal's recent expansion and the December 2015 repeal of the decades-old ban on crude oil exports together are influencing a spike in vessel traffic, experts say.

They've made channel improvement plans more urgent, said U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, who called American ports "the backbone of our economy." He said improving the channel is one of his top priorities, and that he's "working multiple angles" to secure funding for the project.

An amendment Farenthold authored was included in the Water Resources Development Act of 2016. It called for multiphase projects previously fully authorized and underway — such as the port's widening and deepening effort — not to require a “new start” or “new investment” decision to continue.

It passed the House and was later signed into law by President Barack Obama.

"A wider channel with barge shelves on either side will allow more two-way traffic to come into the port," Farenthold said. "These investments will enable the port to accommodate some of the world’s largest tankers and ensure the efficient movement of cargo."

Some widening and deepening efforts already have been made.

The port completed a $58 million extension of the LaQuinta Ship Channel in 2013, and deepened an extension there the next year. That improvement cleared the way for Voestalpine Texas to open its $740 million iron plant along the shoreline.

The port also built ecosystem restoration features in 2012 that act to protect endangered species, wetlands and sea grasses. That effort cost $8.5 million.

A recent survey by the American Association of Port Authorities found that Texas ports and their private-sector partners are planning near $48 billion in capital investments in the next five years to handle the expected growth of cargo.

More confidence in oil market

Making headway on widening and deepening the channel now would be wise as once-battered crude oil prices have shown recent signs of resurgence.

The price of crude oil has consistently closed over $50 barrel since November.

There were 65 rigs running in the Eagle Ford Shale as of Friday, up from 48 just two months ago.

Omar Garcia, president/CEO of the South Texas Energy & Economic Roundtable, or STEER, said improving the channel helps the port remain globally competitive.

Doing so will further business opportunities and evolve the port's effort to become the premier export hub for America’s energy industry, he said.

"These improvements are needed to further the economic development in the Corpus Christi area," Garcia said.

Who is studying the project?

The Port Authority has in recent months approved $2.1 million contracts to hire consultants to conduct testing in the Corpus Christi Ship Channel with hopes of future expasion.

Agency/Company Nature of contract Cost

AECOM, Los Angeles $243,843

Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center Research and Development, Vickburg, Mississippi $725,000 360 Factors EHS Consulting Services Inc. Engineering, Austin $368,634 Department of the Army Dredging, Washington, D.C. $619,000 HDR Engineering Inc. Engineering, Omaha, Nebraska $149,000

Port of Corpus Christi widening and deepening project

By the numbers

$350 million — Estimated cost of project

45 — Current depth, in feet, of Corpus Christi Ship Channel

52 — Proposed depth, in feet, of channel

530 — Proposed width, in feet, of channel from Port Aransas to the Harbor Bridge

Source: Port of Corpus Christi

Port of Corpus Christi profile

Number of direct jobs 13,770

Size 25,000 acres

Tons of cargo/year 100+ million

Traffic/year 6,500+ vessels

State and local tax revenue $353.4 million

Past efforts to deepen and widen the port

1920 Congress authorizes Corps of Engineers to conduct feasibility study for deepwater port

1923 Congress authorizes channel construction of 25 feet in depth, 200 feet in width. Channel is dredged 1925-1926.

Early 1930s Channel is deepened to 30 feet for maneuvering basin. Southern Alkali Corp. is first industry to set up at the port.

1952 Channel across the bay is widened to 400 feet.

1973 Dredging begins on first channel section extending from Gulf to Ingleside cutoff LaQuinta. Dredging commences to deepen to give LaQuinta 45 feet two years later.

1978 Dredging gets underway to extend this channel depth from LaQuinta to one miles outside of breakwater at Corpus Christi.

1989 Dredging of the channel from the gulf to Viola Turning Basin to 45 feet wraps up. It had been approved by Congress in 1968. The move gave Corpus Christi the deepest waterway in the gulf at the time.

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