Panama Canal Expansion to Increase Traffic in Texas
A massive expansion of the Panama Canal will double the capacity of the trade route by 2014. For Texas, this will likely mean a significant increase in freight traffic and measures are being taken to accommodate the extra boats, trucks and trains set to travel through the state.
Still, Gulf ports in Houston and Corpus Christi will not likely be the go-to choice for the really large vessels, often carrying goods from China and Japan. The number-one port is located in Southern California. But experts predict that port will eventually reach capacity.
“And Texas will receive the overflow traffic,” says Mark Cross with the Texas Department of Transportation.
TxDOT put together a Panama Canal Stakeholder Working Group. It’s comprised of members from various concerned groups like the Texas Association of Manufacturers, Texas Port Association and the Texas Farm Bureau. They have a couple of years to figure out what to do with what appears will be a significant increase in traffic. But is that enough time?
“We feel like we’re getting out ahead of it,” Cross says. “We still got some time before it happens…to put a plan together and hopefully go to work making it happen for Texas.”
Robert Harrison is the deputy director at the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas. He says there’s a bigger problem at hand.
“The real massive issue facing larger ships is that channel depths on the sea side are not sufficiently deep,” Harrison says.
“The critical bottleneck at the Gulf Coast is not the responsibility of the [Tx]DOT or the railroads or in the port authorities like Houston or Corpus Christi. It’s the Army Corps of Engineers and the federal government who are responsible for maintaining the channel depths.”
But it appears that the state, not the feds, will be footing the bill for any transportation improvements – specifically to the ports. Representative Larry Phillips of Sherman doesn’t like it. He chairs the state House Committee on Transportation.
“Currently, a tax is collected on those items that go into a port maintenance fund at the federal level,” Phillips says. “And those funds have not been returned, dollar-for-dollar, back to Texas.”
Phillips says the Port of Houston, for example, contributes about $125 million dollars to that federal fund and only gets $25 million back.
But the Port of Houston has decided to take that responsibility into its own hands. It has submitted a request to the Army Corps to widen and deepen its Bayport channels. Officials at the port say they’re already seeing an increase in large-vessel traffic – mostly due to the petro-chemical industry – and it can’t wait a decade to make changes. The expansion will be paid for without federal dollars.
But Robert Harrison says the bottom line is: The expansion of the Panama Canal is a good thing for the world economy and therefore, a good thing for Texas.
“When we have multiple corridors, we have a much more competitive situation,” Harrison says. “When we have a more competitive situation, those companies that are moving to Texas, [are] in Texas or [will be] moving through Texas have a variety of options. And the more efficient, larger canal will be one of them.”
The Panama Canal Stakeholder Working Group is scheduled to meet once a month for the next six months to get all concerns on the table.