HOUSTON – As El Paso nourishes its aspirations and adds many of the attractions and advantages found in other major cities, there is one thing it can never hope to achieve – a deep water port.
Spending time here recently I became intrigued by the Houston Ship Channel. The channel offers oceangoing ships, giant bulk carriers, tankers and container ships, an opportunity to tie up and load or unload just a couple of miles east of downtown Houston.
The Turning Basin marks the end of the channel nearest downtown. Further inland it becomes Buffalo Bayou, while the other direction begins a 52-mile navigable waterway opening to the Gulf of Mexico near Galveston.
One day last month, wife Ellie and I set out by car to check out the channel. Good luck with that. We discovered that since 9/11 owing to the large collection of industrial works and refineries lining the banks of the channel, access is tightly controlled and the last eight miles are considered a security zone.
As a result, it is hard to even glimpse the upper end of the channel unless you are crossing one of the bridges. Even then, depending on your traffic lane, you may not be able to see much.
In several attempts to approach the banks we were challenged by armed guards who demanded our IDs even if just to pull a U-turn around at the guard shack.
There is, however, one way to get a look at about 7.5 miles of the channel nearest downtown and that is aboard the 95-foot motor vessel Sam Houston, which offers twice a day, 90-minute tours as a free public service by the Port of Houston.
The website says you must have a reservation. And while that is probably true in summer, we just showed up and walked on. The deckhands told us that since the boat tour and reservations are free, a lot of people reserve and then don’t show; so, you may be able to get on without reservations even during the summer months.
The channel is, frankly, ugly industrial with floating trash collecting in pockets. It is about 170 yards wide and 45 feet deep for the most part, with docks sufficient to accommodate vessels more than 700 feet long. The Exxon Mobile Baytown refinery, largest in the country, is located along the banks.
There are more than 150 ship terminals, with most found in the last third of the channel closest to downtown. Cruise ships at one time used the channel as a port of call, although I was told that the facility has been repurposed to handle automobile loading and unloading. Cruise ships now dock near Galveston.
Ships transiting the canal are guided by at least one pilot and tugs, quite similar to operations at the Panama Canal, which is only slightly shorter.
What is now the Ship Channel was first transited, with difficulty, by a steamship in 1837. It has been widened and deepened ever since. Current studies are exploring costs of dredging much of the channel to 52 feet, as well as establishing additional holding areas for ships waiting to transfer cargo. Traffic jams are common and can be expensive, depending on who is responsible.
I couldn’t find an average cost per ship for using the port – one of the hands on the Sam Houston said he thought it was about $20,000 per vessel – but if you take the 2017 reported revenue and divide it by the 8,300 large ships that came through, you get about $47,000 per ship. However, that figure is misleading because the port authority also makes money on loading and unloading, warehousing, piloting, use of its new giant cranes and delays which can run $1,000 an hour.
In a word, it is big business. People in Houston say that it is a town that built a port that built a city. In 2015, one study estimated the value of trade going through the port at $137 billion.
The Port of Houston Authority runs the ship channel, but it is patrolled and regulated by the Coast Guard. The authority is constituted by the state as an independent political body run by a seven-person board representing various political stakeholders, including Harris County, Houston and the suburb of Pasadena. For 2019 the projected operating budget is $404 million.
As the port has grown, so too have concerns about its impact on the environment. There are stiff penalties for any ship discharging or washing its tanks or bilge within 12 miles of the coast, but there also are concerns about air pollution from ship engines as well as the refineries and chemical plants that line the banks.
I launched this column suggesting that one thing that El Paso will never have is a deep water port. It also occurs to me there is one thing El Paso has that Houston never will and that is an international land port of entry.
So how do they compare? The Texas State Controller’s office says that in 2017, about $76 billion in trade came through El Paso’s ports. The Port of Houston trade figure for 2015 was $137 billion. So El Paso handles roughly half the trade volume compared to Houston.
Still, not too shabby for … what is it that we have been called – “a dusty little border town?”