Port Master Plan

A map showing the Port of Galveston in relation to other ports is displayed during an open house event at Cruise Terminal 2 in Galveston on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019.

The Port of Galveston’s long-awaited master plan, an initial draft of which was presented Tuesday, raises fundamental questions for Galveston leaders and residents, and contained one surprise.

In many ways, the draft confirmed what people interested in port operations already knew, or at least had long suspected.

One was that the port’s cargo business is likely to continue declining, while its cruise business has almost unlimited potential to grow.

The number of passengers using the port will expand to 4.9 million people by 2038, more than double the number of people who go through the port now, consultants with Bermello Ajamil & Partners said.

That number could be as high as 6 million or 8 million, depending on the decisions the port makes in coming decades.

About 2 million passengers have been embarking annually at the Port of Galveston in recent years, and that number is likely to double in 20 years even without a lot of investment, the consultants said.

With a lot of investment, the number might climb to 8 million, surpassing even the Port of New Orleans.

The questions, which port and city leaders already are asking, is how much cruise business is too much, how single-minded the pursuit of that business should be, how much investment should it commit to the cruise business, perhaps at the expense of investment for its cargo business and commercial tenants.

The investment needed to achieve the port’s full cruise potential would be substantial. It would require operating at least five and maybe six cruise terminals, for example, the consultants said.

The port operates two terminals now, and is building a third in partnership with Royal Caribbean Cruises, which is investing about $100 million in the project.

One of the consequences of building new terminals will be moving some cargo business farther west in the port, officials have said. However, space for such a move is limited, and in coming years the port will have to answer questions about how to meet the needs of companies looking to expand, consultants said.

There are questions for the larger community as well. How much more cruise traffic can the area around the port handle before traffic begins to undermine nearby East End residential neighborhoods, for example.

The surprise was a lukewarm analysis of the potential for expanding the port’s cargo and other more traditional business lines through development of land on Pelican Island.

It has been an article of faith for decades that Pelican Island held great potential for economic development if only there were a better bridge and perhaps a rail link. A second consultant involved in Tuesday’s presentation said that was not the case, however.

Even if the port and city managed to extend rail access to the island, as has been contemplated in recent years, the cost of developing the land on the island for new cargo business is prohibitive, said Jeffrey Sweeney, of Martin Associates, an economic and transportation consulting firm.

The port might instead look at attracting a liquefied natural gas terminal or similar type facility to the island, Sweeney said.

The plan presented Tuesday was only an initial draft, which officials said would be amended after the consultants gathered input from the community.

Port leaders have been encouraged in recent years to develop a master plan, and sometimes have been flogged for not having done it sooner. They have made a good start toward accomplishing that task, and should be commended.

• Michael A. Smith

Michael A. Smith: 409-683-5206; michael.smith@galvnews.com

(9) comments

Allen Flores

The cruise ships are ideally located to benefit downtown businesses. However crossing Harborside Drive is not easy for passengers to visit The Strand. To take full advantage of the benefits of the cruise industry, I've heard that Mr. Rees is working on convenient parking and shuttles to safely transport cruise passengers to The Stand business district. We applaud his efforts to alleviate the parking and current access problems to The Strand.

Charlotte O'rourke

I may be wrong, but don’t think this is the draft master plan. It looks more like a list of cargo challenges and known cruise opportunities. There has been no city, Board, or public input.

The cruise business didn’t fall into the ports lap. It gave major incentives and spent considerable operating funds to obtain and build it.

The port receives no public tax support or HOT funds.

Cargo needs to be more than an afterthought.

Until the port dredges its channel to an appropriate depth, fills the slips as promised, builds bridges to Pelican Island, and actively pursues the cargo business and to keep its current business, it will continue to decline.

Stop giving raises, benefits and bonuses until port infrastructure is adequately taken care of.

Hopefully, the port Board will address these challenges in the actual master plan, and provide a useable product.

Ron Binkley

If we build it, they will come. If we build it great, they will come in droves!

Charlotte O'rourke


We built the cruise terminal, and they came. We built another and they came again, and are still coming.

The consultants all said Galveston couldn’t be in the cruise business. Incentives, determination, and a plan got them here.

The port needs a plan, incentives, and the right moves for cargo. The question is does the city want to be a port or just a tourist destination with ever more tourism and little else?

All good questions and the port deserves credit for starting the conversation with the first steps of a Master Plan.

We spend 25 million on building beaches that washes away in 3 years, but some don’t see the value of a vehicular bridge to Pelican Island that will last 50-80 years and helps develop the area.

Galveston laughed at Houston while they dug a ditch and built a cargo port, and yet they came and it grew to be one of the largest US ports.

Vision, leadership, and planning. Can’t wait!

Charlotte O'rourke

As a FYI/Correction, I believe the POG is number 4 in the US for cruise passengers. It has already passed New Orleans.

Miceal O'Laochdha

Charlotte is on target with all her points. This was not a draft master plan, it was multiple presentations of information accumulated by the consultants for consideration of all interested parties for development of a plan. The consultants showed very clear bias toward the cruise business alone, and definitely considered long term cargo customers as red-headed step children. WWL needed to move from their original location at the west end of the port years ago when their business here continued to expand. Now they are told to just move back to the problems of poor access, lack of usable space, poor infrastructure, and constantly silting-in docks with the consultant’s off-hand statement: "WWL will be fine, obviously we will find space for them". Prediction that current plans for the Port will be unable to meet the needs of Del Monte's plans for expansion met with passive acceptance of them leaving Galveston for another port. These two cargo tenants have been with Galveston for many years, through thick and thin but, we are no longer concerned for their businesses? That is a mistake. At Wednesday's meeting, the consultant flat out said they knew little or nothing about the ship repair and offshore oil project customers for the Port, and he saw no point in including them in planning. Both these intertwined businesses have been slow in recent years but will inevitably regain the level of activity they have had previously and, if not in Galveston then they will go elsewhere. When all the diverse maritime businesses which this port has historically relied upon are ignored and all gone, then Galveston will be at the tender mercies the cruise lines and the ever-present danger that they move elsewhere. Just like the ports with which we compete, the Port of Galveston needs the influx of public funds (taxes) in order the remain viable in the 21st century.

Charlotte O'rourke


I think you made a valid point to remind everyone that the port has other types of business beyond cruise and cargo ..... like ship/oil rig repair and offshore.

I’m still confused on the statement that Pelican Island isn’t feasible for cargo even if we had excellent vehicular and rail access.

Huh .... ?

I didn’t hear this statement. Anyone know how/where this idea was expressed so I can listen to it and understand if the statement was somehow confused or distorted or the consultant lacked sufficient information?

Miceal O'Laochdha

Charlotte, I don't recall a statement by the consultant (or anyone) that was as cut and dried as Pelican Island is unsuitable for cargo even with a new rail and vehicle bridge; but he did state pelican Island was only a consideration in the long term, and not to be considered for short-term planning. As I recall, the consultant did state that a lot of infrastructure would be needed on Pelican in addition to a new rail and vehicle bridge; and I think he was specifically talking about Del Monte and the extent of infrastructure (like large reefer warehouse) they would need. I think if you check that portion of the workshop video where he is discussing Pelican Island as unsuitable for anything but very long-term planning consideration you will find whatever there may be. The poster shots of his power point presentation that were on display at the cruise terminal Tuesday night I think included what he had about Pelican Island too.

Charlotte O'rourke

Miceal, I didn’t find anything unexpected in the presentation. One slide had an error that needs correction otherwise it outlined challenges and potential opportunities.

It would help if the port sharpens its messaging as it goes through the public input process so that when the master plan is finished everyone understands the importance of the port, the value of diversification, and the importance of rail to a successful cargo port.

When the merger failed in 2000 (plan A regionalization), Plan B was always to stay a lean, mean, fighting machine as the port business is very competitive and being a small town without tax support, we are already at a competitive disadvantage to other ports that receive generous public funding.

Hopefully, this Board’s policy and port management will continue making cost efficiencies while growing operating revenue and put the funds into infrastructure, private partnerships, and growth opportunities for current and new customers which should eventually create even more job opportunities.

Thanks for the discussion.

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