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