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Houston at 175
Time for tough decisions

Houston's future as a port depends on a good transportation network

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Globalization is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Products will continue to be imported from far-flung countries. The vast majority of those products will be moved by ocean-going ships, as here shown at the Port of Houston. Courtesy of Port of Houston
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Editors Note: As part of the celebration of Houston's 175th anniversary, we asked some of Houston's leaders to imagine the city's future. In this essay, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett examines what it will take for the Port of Houston to remain a leader.

Imagine Houston without the Ship Channel. If community leaders a century ago had not pushed boldly for the inland waterway, Houston would not be the petrochemical and industrial center that it is today.

Today, our region finds itself facing the need for another bold initiative. That need is for a transportation network that will allow us to realize our future potential as a dominant economic center for global commerce.

Globalization is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Products will continue to be imported from far-flung countries. And as currency values fluctuate and other economic factors change, exports from the United States could increase. In any case, there will be a huge quantity of international trade coming to and from North America. The vast majority of those products will be moved by oceangoing ships.

 The future of Houston, Harris County and the surrounding region could be one in which we are one of the focal points of ocean-going shipping in this hemisphere. All it takes is the same visionary, can-do attitude that put us where we are today. 

Historically, there have been numerous seaport cities on any given coast, but with the advent of “containerization,” the number of truly active general-cargo ports has declined. Ports with facilities for loading and unloading containers are competing for the increasing cargo volumes.

Containerization and technology-driven logistics have created an emphasis on “just in time” delivery systems, in which shippers and receivers of freight no longer maintain excessive warehouse inventories. Goods are now “stored” in transit. This trend, combined with rising fuel and operational costs, has pushed ocean carriers to build and use larger and larger ships. These larger ships are best utilized by minimizing port calls and the time spent in port.

In order for ever-larger ships to unload their containers in a timely manner, the trucks and railroads serving the ports must operate efficiently. Congestion is the biggest enemy of supply chain management.
So the future of Houston, Harris County and the surrounding region could be one in which we are one of the focal points of ocean-going shipping in this hemisphere. All it takes is the same visionary, can-do attitude that put us where we are today.

Gateway of North America

Houston and the surrounding region are perfectly positioned to become “The Gateway of North America.” Our location is central to the continent. With the widening of the Panama Canal, ports in this area will no doubt benefit. More importantly, though, as India, Africa and Brazil inevitably become larger trading partners, ships carrying cargo from those areas will come across the Atlantic Ocean and most likely make a single port call in North America. We are perfectly positioned to be the favored port.

However, if that freight cannot be moved inland efficiently, we could be bypassed by another port location, just as Felixstowe grew from nothing to pass London, Liverpool and other historic ports in the United Kingdom.

The rail and highway network serving the Houston area is an amalgamation that has developed over more than a century. The railroads, for the most part, were built by individual private companies. Until the mid-20th century, some railroads still provided passenger service, so key rail lines still go through downtown.

As the railroad industry reacted to deregulation, companies merged to the degree that we are left with only three railroads serving the region. And those three railroads operate over lines that were laid out long before Harris and surrounding counties had become an urban center with millions of residents.

 If that freight cannot be moved inland efficiently, we could be bypassed by another port location, just as Felixstowe grew from nothing to pass London, Liverpool and other historic ports in the United Kingdom. 

The rail lines also were designed to serve retail customers and warehouses – facilities that are now served almost exclusively by trucks. Of course, the main rail routes were selected when there was no containerization, intermodalism or even unit trains. As a result, the rail network is desperately in need of redesign.

Unlike the privately funded railroad lines, the area highway system has been completely funded by tax dollars and tolls. Decisions about where to put highways have been made by public officials who answer to a political process. That process gives extreme weight to the wants and desires of the traveling public, both inter-city and commuters. Houston has grown up as an automobile city. Indeed, the state of Texas is automobile-focused.

Transportation needs

While the need for personal mobility in the region will continue to grow with a burgeoning population, the need for a renewed freight transportation network will be more important to economic vitality. In these times of tight budgets, how do we meet our transportation needs?

All levels of government should make transportation funding a priority. The federal government would do well to recognize that the Interstate Highway System, an engineering marvel that greatly contributed to the economic expansion of the United States, is in need of maintenance and expansion to serve the demands of global markets. It is also time for the federal government to do what is necessary to assist major ports with their dredging needs to accommodate ever-larger ships, with the development of rail infrastructure to increase intermodalism, and with new emphasis on short sea shipping so that more freight can move via coastal and inland waterways.

 Unless the Legislature takes action, the Texas Department of Transportation will barely have the funds to maintain the current system and no money for the improvements necessary for our economic growth and expanding population. 

The state of Texas, long recognized as having the best highways in the nation, finds itself in a real bind. The 20-cent gasoline tax has not been raised since the mid-1990s, and it was never indexed for inflation. Over the years, the Legislature has diverted significant portions of the gasoline tax to purposes other than building roads. Unless the Legislature takes action, the Texas Department of Transportation will barely have the funds to maintain the current system and no money for the improvements necessary for our economic growth and expanding population.

Local governments also are severely challenged in their efforts to avoid crippling congestion and deteriorating roads. Harris County has stayed ahead of other areas through the use of toll roads. Nobody likes to pay tolls, but it is preferable to being trapped in ever-increasing traffic congestion.

The problem is apparent. If we do not invest in transportation improvements, our area will fail to reach its potential and might even wither. Unfortunately, there is no single, easy answer.

Governments must make transportation funding a priority because that will allow economic activity that will, in turn, generate the taxes to fund other needs.

Public/private partnerships must be designed to bring otherwise unavailable resources into the development of transportation infrastructure of all types.

But above all else, the tax-paying public must understand the importance of moving forward. When legislators and other public officials make bold, tough decisions to assure our future, we should applaud them, just as we applaud those leaders who decided to build a ship channel a century ago.

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