Retired commissioner helped engineer Port of Brownsville’s comeback

From Left to Right: John Reed, Commissioner, Brownsville Navigation District; John Wood, Secretary, Brownsville Navigation District; Ralph Cowen, Vice-Chairman, Brownsville Navigation District; Esteban Guerra, Chairman, Brownsville Navigation District; and Sergio Tito Lopez, Commissioner, Brownsville Navigation District at a regular board meeting held May 1, 2024. (Courtesy | Port of Brownsville)
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The Port of Brownsville is a much different place now compared to May 2008, when Brownsville Navigation District Commissioner Ralph Cowen was sworn in among a new slate of commissioners.

So says Cowen, who was honored May 1 by his fellow commissioners for 16 years of service to the port, including two years as commission chairman, from 2014 to 2016. He realized his fourth term on commission would be his last, he recently told The Brownsville Herald, after receiving the news that he needed quadruple-bypass heart surgery, from which Cowen is still recovering.

Cowen said he had already written the announcement that he would seek a fifth term when he got the news.

“I knew that I didn’t have any choice,” he said. “I had to have this done. I couldn’t do rehab and campaign.”

Cowen recalled that 16 years ago, when Sergio Tito Lopez and John Reed also were sworn in as port commissioners and Eduardo Campirano was hired as port director, the port was bogged down in scandal over a failed $26 million bridge project and charges of misappropriation of funds. Brownsville residents were so fed up there was even talk of filling in the ship channel, Cowen said.

He ran for one of the seats (Place 1) left vacant by departing commissioners and won. Cowen, whose great-grandmother was born in Matamoros in 1832, had grown up in Brownsville loving water, boats and the port. He felt a port gave life to a community, and he wanted to do something significant in his life. Cowen said he thought he would be a good fit for the commission.

But there was a mess to clean up, including paying down $26 million in bonds from the “bridge to nowhere” debacle, which the commission eventually managed to do.

“It took years to do but we got it paid off, and we kept going,” Cowen said.

Also, the port entrance and administration building needed a face lift, another item commissioners were able to accomplish over time.

“If it’s tired and worn out nobody’s going to come and invest big bucks in a place like that,” Cowen said.

Things progressed to the point that the port was able to begin depositing $50,000 in its capital account every week from all income, allowing it to pay cash for many improvements. Two massive, heavy-duty docks were constructed with help from federal grant funds, infrastructure essential for handling the massively heavy steel slab that would become a port mainstay.

“We just started blowing and going more and more, and Keppel AmFELS was building (offshore) rigs,” Cowen said.

Freeport LNG came knocking at one point, proposing a liquefied natural gas export terminal at the port like the one the company had farther up the coast. That was the beginning of roughly a decade of the port raking in millions of dollars a year just from lease options from Freeport and other LNG companies proposing projects on port property.

Until then, the port had been getting $2 per acre per year for cattle grazing on the same land, which had no utilities or infrastructure at all, Cowen said.

Freeport and other LNG firms came and went, only to be replaced by a cast of new players: NextDecade’s sprawling Rio Grande LNG project is under construction between the ship channel and S.H. 48, and another, Texas LNG, is expected to make a final investment decision fairly soon, Cowen said.

Now the port is handling components and equipment for SpaceX’s Boca Chica/Starbase production and testing complex, has greatly expanded its oil terminal operations and is about to get a flour mill, Cowen said, adding that AmFELS is now Seatrium, and has transitioned to ship building and is a major employer at the port.

Meanwhile, the long-sought-after deepening of the channel from 42 to 52 feet, to accommodate today’s larger cargo ships, is about to get underway, with Rio Grande LNG committed to paying for the portion from its plant to the jetties. Other money has been set aside for deepening the channel from Rio Grande LNG to the turning basin, Cowen said.

For these and other reasons, “we are right in the cusp of making the transition of our region from one of the poorest areas in the United States to a prosperous one,” he said.

“I’m proud of our port and I’m very optimistic that the future of the port is bright,” Cowen said. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

At their May 1 meeting, commissioners presented him with a resolution honoring Cowen’s lengthy record of dedicated service.

“We are grateful for Commissioner Cowen’s leadership and dedication to the Port of Brownsville,” said Chairman Esteban Guerra. “We extend our heartfelt appreciation to him for his invaluable service and wish him continued success in all future endeavors.”

“It has been an honor to serve the port,” Cowen said. “I would like to thank everyone for their trust in me and I wish you all the best.”