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Port Makes First Move on $327 Million Channel Project

September 3, 2017 | Corpus Christi Caller-Times

The Port of Corpus Christi has grown tired of waiting for the federal government to provide funding for the proposed deepening and widening of its ship channel.

The Port Commission on Friday voted unanimously to provide $32.2 million in advance funding to pay for the first phase of a project that’s been in the works for 27 years. It was in 1990 that Congress gave authorization to study channel improvements. The proposed $327 million project would be split among the port and the federal government, with the latter picking up the bulk of the total cost, or $224.5 million.

The port would have to pay about $102.4 million for its share of the work, according to information presented on Monday. Over the years, port officials have hoped to see funding allocated in Congress for the project, but that has not yet come to fruition.

“Our concern is that the way things are working in Washington (D.C.) now – or not working – this could take seven years (to complete), and we don’t want to wait seven years,” John LaRue, executive director of the Port of Corpus Christi, said. “We want to get this thing done in three to four years.”

The commission approved a Project Partnership Agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday, which allows the Corpus Christi Ship Channel project to finally move forward. The channel has had work done in the past few years, including a 1.4-mile extension of the La Quinta Ship Channel ($33 million), and a $6.6 million deepening of that extension to 47 feet. Those were completed in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

However, several other parts of the overall ship channel project have remained pending. Port officials and the Corps of Engineers have worked to finalize the partnership agreement, which outlines different levels of cost-sharing for each phase between the federal government and the port. Those cost-sharing amounts will vary depending on the work to be done, but the federal government would foot the bulk of the bill, should it ever allocate money for the $327 million project.

“We couldn’t do anything until we had this project agreement that we did today,” LaRue said. “The (Army) Corps (of Engineers) won’t let you do anything – there can’t be any dredging, the project can’t move until we have an agreement …with a local sponsor, between them and the Corps. Then they can move.”

The ship channel project would be a monumental step forward for the Port of Corpus Christi, as it could expand the types of barges able to move in and out of the port. The facility is poised to grow its operations for exporting crude oil, expanding on efforts that began two years ago, port officials said.

“It’s not just a Corpus Christi or regional project – this is really a national project because the product that will be moving through here and what we’re doing has a significant impact nationally,” he added.

Under the terms of the agreement, the port would provide $32.2 million in “accelerated funding” for the first phase of the ship channel work within the next 30 days. That first part would entail expanding the entrance channel about 10,000 feet and deepening it to 56 feet (at its lowest water height of each tidal day), officials said.

The first phase would stretch from the Gulf of Mexico to Harbor Island (just east of Port Aransas), with five other phases stretching from there to the Joe Fulton Corridor.

The agreement sets a limit on that type of “accelerated funding,” though, capping it at $102.4 million. That is the amount estimated to be the port’s share of the entire $327 million project cost.

Sean Strawbridge, deputy executive director and chief operating officer for the port, said there was an option to advance funding for the ship channel project above the port’s $102.4 million portion. The issue with that move is the federal government would essentially put the port on the hook to pay the remaining balance of the entire $327 million project, he added.

“There’s a high risk, if we go into advance funding, that we would not get reimbursed for that,” he said. “So then this commission would have to make a determination into what the financial impacts of that are and how that money could be recouped through other means.”

Port officials said they are still hopeful that federal funding will help pay for the remaining five phases of the ship channel work, but they are prepared to issue debt, if necessary.

“We’re still optimistic that we’re going to get federal money, and then that relieves us of putting up all the money ourselves,” LaRue said.

“We’ve got to bring certainty to the project,” Strawbridge later added. “What we expect is the federal government to hold up its end of the bargain.”

While the first phase would involve a new 56-foot depth, from the current 49-foot depth, other parts of the channel would be deepened to 54 feet, officials said. The widening of the channel would also allow for separate lanes for barges heading in and out of the port.

Current estimates put the first phase of the ship channel work to go out for bids before the end of this year, and the second phase in 2018 “as quickly as they can,” he said. The third phase would hopefully get underway shortly afterward, officials said.

“That actually gets us to customers who can use it,” LaRue said. There’s two customers there – Oxy and Flint Hills – who, when we get 54 feet to them, can start making use of that right away. They don’t have to wait, so that’s a key stretch for us to get to that component.”

“It’ll make them much more efficient and able to compete in world markets, not just in U.S. markets,” he added, referring to other port customers.

Strawbridge said the port would seek $50 million in appropriations for the project in the next federal budget cycle. The priority is to keep momentum for the project going, now that the first batch of funding has been approved. The proposed channel improvements have been anticipated by the port’s customers for years, officials said, and if completed, could help further the port’s growth for years to come.

“The port’s never seen this type of growth in its 91-year history,” Strawbridge added.

Port of Corpus Christi widening and deepening project

By the numbers

$327 million – Estimated cost of project

45 – Current depth, in feet, of Corpus Christi Ship Channel

54 – Proposed depth, in feet, of channel

530 – Proposed width, in feet, of channel from Port Aransas to the Harbor Bridge

Source: Port of Corpus Christi

Past efforts to deepen and widen the port 

1920 Congress authorizes Corps of Engineers to conduct feasibility study for deepwater port

1923 Congress authorizes channel construction of 25 feet in depth, 200 feet in width. Channel is dredged 1925-1926.

Early 1930s Channel is deepened to 30 feet for maneuvering basin. Southern Alkali Corp. is first industry to set up at the port.

1952 Channel across the bay is widened to 400 feet.

1973 Dredging begins on first channel section extending from Gulf to Ingleside cutoff LaQuinta. Dredging commences to deepen to give LaQuinta 45 feet two years later.

1978 Dredging gets underway to extend this channel depth from LaQuinta to one miles outside of breakwater at Corpus Christi.

1989 Dredging of the channel from the gulf to Viola Turning Basin to 45 feet wraps up. It had been approved by Congress in 1968. The move gave Corpus Christi the deepest waterway in the gulf at the time.

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