Despite its benefit to the petrochemical industry and the state’s overall economy, most Texans know very little about the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW). Though it stretches from Brownsville, Texas, to Carrabelle, Florida, the Texas leg hugs the shoreline to Orange. The robust activity along those 379 miles of coastline will soon be described in a study conducted by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) as part of a first-of-its-kind GIWW master plan being developed by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).
“Our interest in studying all aspects of the Intracoastal Waterway really grew from the planned Panama Canal expansion project,” Sarah Bagwell, TxDOT’s policy and planning coordinator, explains. “Last year, we established the agency’s first Maritime Division to keep tabs on the expansion and study what that could mean for Texas. A GIWW master plan is a natural step for the division.”
In developing a master plan, TTI’s research will answer numerous questions about GIWW:
- How much freight is being moved on the waterway on an annual basis?
- Is the GIWW being operated at its maximum efficiency?
- What is the overall economic benefit to the state of the GIWW?
- How much would it cost for — and should the state take a more active role in — dredging the waterway to its maximum 12-foot depth? Dredging the GIWW has traditionally been a responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but the lack of federal funds limits how much can be dredged.
- Could other industries utilize the waterway?
“We already know that 90 percent of GIWW barge traffic consists of petroleum products and petrochemical-related materials,” says Jim Kruse, director of TTI’s Center for Ports and Waterways. “The waterway is the backbone for that industry because operators can move product at a fraction of the cost of moving it on the highway system. That dramatic cost savings means the consumer is a huge beneficiary of the GIWW.” The Corps of Engineers reported some 53,000 individual barge trips on the GIWW in 2011.
Kruse points out that the capacity of one tank barge equals 144 tanker trucks (that’s enough gasoline to sustain the average annual consumption of 2,500 people). Keeping that many tanker trucks off the roadway is an obvious relief to motorists, he says. It also helps reduce maintenance needs on Texas roadways, benefitting taxpayers and allowing TxDOT to focus its maintenance crews elsewhere.
To help gather information, TxDOT has formed a GIWW Stakeholder Working Group, which will begin conducting meetings in November. One member of the group is the Kirby Corporation, which has 4,600 employees and is the largest tank barge operator in the nation. Most of Kirby’s inland tank barge activity is along the Gulf Coast.
“The silting of the GIWW and the need to dredge is an extremely important issue on the waterway,” Matt Woodruff, Kirby Corporation’s director of government affairs, says. “However, there are several other issues that I think are similarly important, including ways to alleviate choke points such as the Brazos floodgates and ensuring other infrastructure is operating efficiently. Having a master plan is an important step, and I look forward to bringing up those concerns.”
TTI’s research project is scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2014. For more information, view the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, Legislative Report—83rd Legislature.