You may not know that the ports of Galveston and Houston are among the busiest in the nation. We also have the distinction that unlike other ports, we export more than we import — about 52 percent exports/48 percent imports.

About 70 percent of the traffic in the Houston Ship Channel is generated by the petrochemical industry.

The channel can handle 8,000 to 9,000 fully loaded TEU (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units) container ships. The challenge comes when these larger container ships come to call. Although it’s cheaper to have more containers on a single ship than it is to have multiple smaller vessels, the challenge comes when the larger ships arrive and their capacity crowds other ship traffic.

Our channel is already notorious for the need to play “chicken” with two way traffic in order to accommodate our extensive/diverse trade; when the larger container vessels are introduced the situation gets worse. So there’s room to maneuver/turn them within the channel/turning basin, the Port of Houston and their counterparts have been negotiating to limit the larger vessels to one per week. This only limits the future growth of our ports.

Because the new deeper and wider Panama Canal, mega ships capable of handling up to 14,400 TEUs can now transit the canal. Meanwhile over 30 container vessels that exceed 20,000 TEU container capability are under construction.

Much of our nation’s container traffic arrives on the West Coast and heads into the heartland hubs like Dallas/Fort Worth. Some of the empty containers are routed to us where they’re filled with polymer pellets and other products for export. With the new Panama Canal, Houston/Galveston could be the gateway to mid-America not just from the Greater Houston area.

To accommodate this trade our channel needs to be deepened and widened, but doing this is going to take years to accomplish. Meanwhile our ports aren’t “the only show in town.” Savannah, Georgia, isn’t that much further than we are from the canal. It has a deep channel, rail infrastructure to move product inland, and the political will to entice more and larger ships. It’s clear that if we’re to be competitive we need to do some forward thinking and have the potential stakeholders pull together.

We need to devise and examine all the alternate scenario-based models for this potential.

Foremost would be to develop Pelican Island. This will take time, money, planning and setting aside short-sighted needs for instant gratification. In the long run, having a deep water port that doesn’t require a 12-hour trip up and down the channel could be extremely attractive, economical, and profitable. But doing so is going to take a lot of effort and political will.

First, the Port of Houston, which owns a big portion of Pelican Island, will need to be willing to allow the development of this port on its land. Second, there would need to be rail access to Pelican Island, and yes, a rail bridge.

In the long run, it makes economic sense to develop Pelican Island into a mega deepwater container port. One can only hope and encourage leaders to step up and consider doing this.

Bill Sargent lives in Galveston.

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(8) comments

Ellen Morrison

Having a massive container port on Pelican Island would be detrimental to the quality of life for residents of Galveston. Noise and pollution are but 2 of the negative effects that would impact the Island in a negative way.

Bailey Jones

The place for more shipping traffic is the place we already have it - the port and ship channel. I lived 2.5 miles from the port for many years. Nine giant cranes loading and unloading containers - it makes a tremendous amount of noise, and every one of those 1000s of containers has to be loaded on a truck or train and carried away - will there be new rail lines and a highway to Pelican Island, or will these 1000s of containers be transported through Galveston? I hope the city would sit down with the citizens of Shore Acres, La Porte and Seabrook and find out what living next to such a facility is like. Maybe Pelican Island could be developed into something quieter - like a world class sailing facility, or how about a nice wind farm?

Steve Fouga

I'm not sure if I agree with the conclusion, but thanks for the informative article.

Miceal O'Laochdha

Well, Mr. Sargent is right about developing Pelican Island, although whomever fed him this supporting information leapt across a few minor details. Post-Panamax containers ships are not going to be coming into US Gulf or East Coast ports, they don't fit. There will be a transshipping hub established before long in some lucky Caribbean country and smaller vessels will transload containers from the post-panamax ships, for discharge in US ports on this side of the continent. That is the business for which the undeveloped Pelican Island, positioned one hour from the Bar, is ideally suited. Start in Bath, Maine and proceed around the coast to Brownsville, Texas and make note of how many full capability seaports have a piece of land one hour transit time in pilot waters inbound and outbound and on a major, federally-maintained ship channel. Pelican is a rare diamond in the rough. Unfortunately, the reason the Port of Houston bought up the bulk of Pelican Island was to ensure Galveston never develops a competing box ship facility there so...solving that little problem is going to require more than a sentence or two from a politician.


Ms. Morrison and Mr. Jones also have excellent and interconnected points. I must presume Ms. Morrison eschews all use of consumer goods, wearing clothing made of hemp and living in a stone hut. And once all worldwide shipping, for which humans have found a burning need since the time of the Phoenicians, returns to the sole use of square-rigged sailing ships, Mr. Jones’ world-class sailing port will really put Galveston on the map. The Brooklyn Bridge is still for sale Mr. Jones.

Gary Scoggin

I love it when Miceal talks shipping and maritime stuff. He is so knowledgeable! Thanks!

Miceal O'Laochdha

Thank you Gary, it has been a "long, strange trip". Thank you in turn for the really good information you often provide, as well.

Jarvis Buckley

Now that's funny.😀

Ron Binkley

What we don't spend now will only cost much, much more in the future.

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