A year after intense controversy erupted between harbor pilots and shippers who must pay them to guide vessels in and out local ports, the maritime players agreed their relationship has improved.
The conflict, which included litigation, began when the Board of Pilot Commissioners for Galveston County Ports approved increases of 30 percent over three years in rates pilots charge shippers. The board ultimately amended its own decision and approved a one-year increase of less than pilots had wanted.
That agreement is reaching its end, and while harbor pilots in surrounding regions are asking for new rate increases, several maritime officials in Galveston County said they hadn’t heard about any plans to follow suit.
“We have a really good relationship with the ports of Galveston and Texas City right now,” said James Andrews, the director of operations for the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association. “And we also have a really strong relationship with the current board of pilot commissioners. That’s good will we don’t want to threaten. And the last time we had a rate increase approved, then there was all sorts of unpleasantness.”
In the months leading up to the board’s March 2017 decision, the original tariff rate increase, which would have raised rates 30 percent over a three-year period, was a point of contention between several maritime groups and the pilots association. The board eventually approved a 16-percent increase over a one-year agreement.
The association, a group of 16 pilots, is a state-sanctioned monopoly regulated by the board members who must approve pilot tariff rates on oil tankers, cruise passenger ships or other vessels calling at the ports of Galveston and Texas City.
Even after the board approved the amended rate increase, some cruise insiders privately said there is growing dissatisfaction over the pilots being overly cautious during fog season, and Ted O’Rourke, the chairman of the Port of Galveston’s governing board, voiced concern about how the pilots are governed.
But renewed talks between the groups and several new faces on the board that governs the pilots might have changed the tune, officials said.
“I haven’t heard or been notified about anything to do with them asking for a tariff increase,” said Brad Boney, who is secretary on the board of pilot commissioners. “And that’s fine with me.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on July 31 appointed James Perry “J.P.” Bryan and Charles “Fritz” Kuebler to seats on the five-member board. Bryan replaced former Galveston police Chief Henry Porretto, while Kuebler took the unexpired term of Kenny Koncaba, who resigned earlier this year.
“What I see is that everyone is positive about doing whatever they can to advance our ports,” Bryan, a retired Houston oilman best known locally for creating The Bryan Museum in Galveston, said.
“I see as well that they are underutilized and could be much more dynamic than they currently are. But that requires every party not getting in their separate corners and looking at the entirety of what’s available — seeing how every group can contribute to the greater good.”
Some neighboring pilots organizations, such as those in Houston, have asked for tariff rate increases in recent months, records show.
But the Houston pilots in October withdrew their application amid industry pushback, officials said.
The Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association is still working to complete most of the projects approved in the 2017 rate increase, Andrews said.
“We’ve made some really good progress,” Andrews said. “And looking at the ports’ numbers, that can show what you can accomplish when we’re working together. We’d love to see that relationship continue.”