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The Brownsville Herald

A proposal to deepen the Brownsville Ship Channel in order to accommodate newer, larger cargo vessels has received the official endorsement of the chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, U.S. Army chief of engineers and commanding general of the USACE, recommended in his recent “Chief’s Report” to Secretary of the Army John McHugh that the channel be deepened to 52 feet from its current depth of 42 feet.

Bostick estimated that the project — dubbed the “Brazos Island Harbor Channel Improvement Project” — would cost $251 million, $116 million of which would be provided by the federal government, and wrote that it would result in significant economic advantages for commercial navigation in South Texas.

The Port of Brownsville is the only deepwater port on the U.S.-Mexico border. Eduardo Campirano, Brownsville port director and CEO, said having the Chief’s Report in hand is the last step in the years long feasibility-study phase, and means the project will be eligible for consideration in the next round of congressional authorizations.

“It is another milestone in the process of achieving success,” he said. The project missed out on the last round of authorizations, contained in the Water Resources and Reform Development Act of 2014, because it didn’t have a Chief’s Report in hand, Campirano said. 

The next chance will be in 2016, when Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the WRRDA. The Chief’s Report “substantiates that the deepening project is in the national interest and merits consideration for federal authorization,” Campirano said. 

He said he thinks chances for authorization are good, considering several similar projects for Texas ports were authorized in 2014. Once a project is authorized, the next step is appropriation — securing funding. 

While a 42-foot channel depth was more than adequate two or three decades ago, newer cargo vessels are larger and carry heavier loads, meaning they require a deeper draft, which is why Brownsville requires a 52-foot-deep channel, Campirano said. 

Cargo ships are being built to carry heavier loads because it lowers the perunit cost of shipping. Being able to accommodate these bigger ships means more economic impact per vessel, Campirano said. 

It’s the difference between the number of stevedores, equipment operators and truck drivers required to unload a ship that can carry, say, 40,000 metric tons of steel versus one that can carry 70,000 metric tons, he said. 

“It just creates a lot of jobs,” Campirano said. “If you bring in a vessel with 70,000 tons of steel the impact on those jobs is significant.” 

Deepening the channel would also increase the port’s competitiveness in terms of imports and exports, which affects U.S. trade on a larger scale, he said. 

Additionally, a deeper channel is key to the ability of Keppel AmFELS — the port’s largest employer — to support offshore oil and gas exploration and production through the repair and modification of offshore rigs, Campirano said. 

Without the channel project, AmFELS will likely see much of that work lost to foreign shipyards, he said. 

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, said the current generation of rigs AmFELS works on are able to navigate the channel at its current depth, “but they’re cutting it pretty close.” “There comes a point where the next generation are a lot bigger than the ones they’re working on now,” he said. “The challenge is to keep businesses like AmFELS as well as attract new business.” 

The chief’s recommendation is subject to approval by the Secretary of the Army after a 60-day review period, then subject to approval by the Office of Management and Budget after another 60-day review period, Vela said. 

He’s optimistic that the deepening project will be authorized as long as Congress reauthorizes the Water Resources and Reform Development Act on schedule. 

It’s supposed to happen every two years, though it took lawmakers seven years last time, Vela said. Still, the process of reauthorization was streamlined in 2014, which he said is cause for optimism. 

“Given my conversations with the current Republican and Democratic chairs of the Transportation Committee, I think that WRRDA is one of those issues that has broad bipartisan support,” he said. 

Appropriation is a separate process. While it’s years before any work begins on the channel, assuming the project goes through, Vela said it’s not too soon to start thinking about where the local share of the money — $135 million — is going to come from. 

“I think when you consider the fact that between AmFELS, the ship recyclers and our steel exportimporters, and the number of jobs that they provide, those are the kinds of factors that people need to start looking at when we’re trying to determine how to pay for it,” Vela said. 

Campirano said the port doesn’t have that kind of money laying around, and that he’s long maintained that the project would require a combination of federal, local and private funding. 

“We’re not doing a whole lot in terms of how to accomplish that,” he said. “We need to work to maximize those opportunities. The port has gone through at least three deepening projects. The last one was in the ‘90s, from 36 feet to 42 feet, so the community has been able to find a way to get it done.

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