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Saturday, May 25 2019 @ 10:53 AM UTC

Brownsville port hopes to gain from Panama Canal expansion

Canal ExpansionBy Steve Clark for The Brownsville Herald - The most ambitious expansion of the Panama Canal in its history is under way, and the Port of Brownsville could benefit — at least indirectly. Work to add a third set of locks to the canal system and widen and deepen its existing navigation channels began in 2007 and should be complete in 2014, doubling the canal’s capacity. Eduardo Campirano, Brownsville port director and CEO, said the improvements will allow the canal to accommodate container vessels of 12,000 to 14,000 TEUs (TEU stands for 20-foot equivalent unit) compared to approximately 6,000 TEUs today. One TEU is the size of a standard cargo container, used to ship everything from car parts to DVDs to teddy bears. Cargo traffic in the Gulf of Mexico is almost certain to grow, with a trickle-down effect likely to benefit the Port of Brownsville and other smaller Gulf ports, Campirano said, though it’s a little early to predict what form it will take.

“The expectation is that shipping activity is going to increase in the Gulf,” he said. “If that happens, then we all have a chance to benefit. But we all have to go after our niches and our markets. Part of that will be watching the market to see what it’s doing.” While the Port of Brownsville might catch some business by servicing feeder cargo lines that in turn serve bigger cargo operations, don’t expect to see an armada of mega-vessels suddenly appearing in the Brownsville ship channel, Campirano said. “We’re not going to be seeing 8,000 container vessels coming to the Port of Brownsville,” he said. “There are a handful of ports in the country that handle 80 percent of the container business. Probably that’s not going to change.”

Instead, the port will focus on assets such as its year-old, short-sea shipping service, which transports cargo inside containers on barges between Brownsville and Port Manatee, Fla. Demand is enough that SeaBridge Freight, which operates the service, is considering adding a second barge to the route, Campirano said. The port’s goal is to continue to diversify the cargo mix while finding ways to keep the containers full, not just en route to Florida but on the return trip as well.

“Most of the product is being hauled from Brownsville to Manatee as opposed to the other way around,” he said. “The key is: What can we bring back?”

Campirano concedes the container-on-barge service isn’t a huge moneymaker for the port. In fact, the Port of Brownsville — because it’s just now breaking into the container business — intentionally charges a lower container-handling fee compared to Houston and other large ports with established, thriving container operations. At the end of the day, though, it puts people to work, which is the important thing. “Where we make the money is more on the services that are offered: wharfage, stevedore services, using the facilities, agents, hauling, trucking, etc.,” Campirano said. “It keeps these guys busy. It keeps them employed.”

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