Tight Ship: No Relief for Crowded Houston Waterways

With cargo ships backed up at ports in California, states like Texas and Florida are offering to take more of those ships here. But that isn't likely to happen at the Port of Houston, which is already dealing with delays of its own. Many of the problems at the port stem from backups at the Houston Ship Channel, which has forced the port to limit the entry of large container ships to one per week. The National Transportation Safety Board has noted "significant challenges" in navigating the Houston Ship Channel because of its narrowness and traffic.

Plans to widen and dredge the Houston channel have been discussed for years, but with little progress to date. Now, the supply chain backups have made the issue more urgent. "The current issues have really highlighted the importance of a well-functioning port system, and how vital this is to keep the supply chain going," says Colin Grabow, policy analyst at the CATO Institute.

Grabow blames outdated U.S. policy for making the ship channel widening more costly, difficult and time-consuming. "There are a couple of U.S. laws that get in the way of the efficient and timely expansion of the Houston Ship Channel," he tells KTRH. "They are the Foreign Dredge Act of 1906 and the 1920 Jones Act."

"Essentially, these laws prevent foreign dredgers from participating in the bidding process," Grabow continues. "And that's a shame, because foreign dredgers tend to be the most efficient and the best at this kind of work. There are some estimates showing they could do these kinds of jobs for a half or a third of the price, and, perhaps more importantly, they could do it even faster."

Grabow believes Congress should either repeal or modify these old maritime laws as part of any infrastructure package. "Right now, there's an appetite to spend a lot of money to update the country's infrastructure," he says. "I hope before we engage in a spending spree, we can also look at opportunities to build our infrastructure and improve it in a more efficient fashion."

Photo: AFP

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