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Port of Brownsville Looks to Fund Deepening Project Ahead of Federal Action

The Port of Brownsville is mulling an initiative with tenants in the port to help fund a $251 million dredging project on the Brazos Island Harbor Channel that will allow the port to handle deeper draft vessels, ahead of federal authorization.

Officially dubbed as the Brazos Island Harbor Channel Improvement Project, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chief of Engineers Thomas Bostick approved the proposal to deepen the Port of Brownsville by 10 feet to 52 feet in November 2014. The project waits for final authorization and funding from Congress, and was not part of the Corps of Engineers FY 2016 budget.

Eduardo Campirano, port director and CEO said that the Corps’ portion of the funding for the project would depend on the next round of authorizations from the Water Resources and Reform Development (WRRDA) Act of 2014.

The federal government’s share of the project is around $116 million. The Port of Brownsville has not decided on a lender or debt structure needed for the private sector component.

“We are exploring the project by looking at it as a potential private action, in other words, initiating the project ahead of any federal action,” Campirano said. “So we have been developing a plan to execute on that.”

WRRDA contained language that contemplates public-private initiatives of this nature to kick start projects with private capital ahead of the federal budget. Investors would also be able to get federal reimbursement for its share of the project.

To do this, the port would need to enter into agreement with the Corps, with the development of a Section 408 Report, Section 204 Report, and 404 Permit Approval. According to Corps spokesperson Isidro Reyna, the Section 408 Report is a write up that assures the Corps that the proposed work will not have impacts on neighboring federal projects; the 204 report economic report allows the federal government to assume the operations and maintenance of the channel once it’s dredged; and the Corps must also approve the 404 action for the permit for the work.

If the project receives Congressional authorization once the project has begun under port funding, the port could get reimbursement for funding. However, the Corps said that funding is not guaranteed.

The Chief’s Report said the channel would create approximately 14.1 million cubic yards of new work material and 61.7 million cubic yards of maintenance material over the 50-year period considered for the economic evaluation.

The recommended project plan includes deepening along a majority of the channel length with no widening. The entrance and jetty channels at Station -17+000 to 0+000 would be deepened from 44 feet to a depth of 54 feet Mean Lower Low Water (MLLW). This provides an additional two feet of depth, beyond the interior channel depth, to allow for the effects of vessel pitch, roll, heave and yaw, occurring as a result of strong currents, waves and wind. From Station 0+000 to 84+200, the channel would be deepened from 42 feet to a depth of 52 feet MLLW. From Station 84+200 to 86+000, the existing channel depth of 42 feet MLLW would be maintained, since there is no forecast change in the design drafts of vessels using this portion of the channel in the future. The channel would continue to be maintained at the existing depth of 36 feet MLLW from Station 86+000 to the end of the Turning Basin, as ships will have been light-loaded or unloaded before entering the basin.

Separate from the deepening project, the Corps also recently awarded a $6,956,000 contract to RLB Contracting for maintenance dredging at the Brownsville Ship Channel and Turning Basin and Port Isabel Channel and Turning Basin. The contractor will remove two million cubic yards of material, which will go to an upland placement area, adjacent to both channels.

The Corps said maintenance dredging in the Brazos Island Harbor Jetty Channel occurs approximately every year and a half.

Work at the Port of Brownsville is increasingly critical to the regional energy sector. Already one of the country’s busiest ports, the Texas facility is also a major point of entry into northern Mexico. With the Panama Canal Expansion expected to be ready in 2016, the Port of Brownsville will benefit from the project there.

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