Port Progress; 2020 was a year of milestones


Port of Brownsville officials have reasons to look back on 2020 with fondness despite the difficulties posed by the pandemic.

The port started off the year by announcing its Foreign Trade Zone’s rank among the top three in the nation for value of exports according to the U.S. FTZ Board annual report to Congress based on figures from 2018. Then in May, officials were able to announce a record-setting $8.9 billion in combined imports and exports for 2019 within its FTZ No. 62.

The total value of export shipments through the FTZ hit $4.3 billion in 2019, up from $3.8 billion the year before. The port also saw $4.6 billion in imports, the highest in the FTZ’s 40-year history. The numbers were driven mainly by petroleum products, shipbuilding equipment, steel aluminum and wind-energy products.

It was also the year construction began on the South Port Connector Road, which will link Ostos Road south of the Brownsville Ship Channel to S.H. 4 about 14 miles west of SpaceX’s Starship production complex and launch site. The $25.6 million road project broke ground in August and is scheduled for completion in 2021. The 1.9-mile-long connector will provide another route between the port and Veterans International Bridge at Los Tomates and is the first phase of the planned East Loop Corridor project.

The roughly 10-mile-long East Loop would be built to overweight standards and directly connect the port to Veterans Bridge via a route from S.H. 4/South Port Connector Road that passed south of the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport. John Reed, immediate past chairman of the Brownsville Navigation District board, which oversees the port, said last year that although the South Port Connector Road was in the works long before SpaceX came along, the direct connection to the company’s rocket development facility is an extra benefit to the project.

In August, 34,000 metric tons of Rio Grande Valley sorghum, the first grain shipment to cross the port’s bulk cargo dock in 13 years, was loaded from the port’s newly renovated grain elevator onto a deep-draft vessel bound for China. It was the first of four sorghum shipments scheduled for shipment to China in 2020 by West Plains LLC, which has invested at least $13 million in rebuilding and upgrading the elevator since signing an agreement with the port about four years ago. In October the port was awarded a $14.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to improve its grain storage and loading facilities in support of the improvements carried out by West Plains.

The decommissioned USS Stephen F. Groves, the sixth Navy vessel received this year by port tenant International Shipbreaking Ltd./EMR Group for recycling, arrived at the port on Nov. 19.

In September, port tenant Keppel AmFELS announced it had won a contract to build the nation’s largest self-propelled hopper dredge for Seattle, Wash.-based Manson Construction Company. It will be the first dredge built at AmFELS, an offshore rig-fabrication, repair and maintenance company that has diversified into shipbuilding in recent years. AmFELS, part of Singapore-based Keppel Offshore & Marine, in 2017 announced contracts for the shipping firm Pasha Hawaii to build two liquefied-natural-gas-powered container ships, with options for two more ships.

AmFELS was presented with the 2020 BND Chairman’s Award on Dec. 3 in recognition of the company’s reintroduction of shipbuilding to Texas and creation of hundreds of full-time jobs in the process.

On Dec. 16 the keel was laid at AmFELS for the first Jones Act-compliant offshore wind turbine installation vessel. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, stipulates that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried on U.S.-flagged vessels built in the United States.

The hull and infrastructure of vessel, which AmFELS is building for Virginia-based Dominion Energy, will use more than 14,000 of domestic steel and be 472 feet long and 184 feet wide, making it one of the largest ships of its kind in the world. The project is expected to create nearly 700 direct construction jobs.

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