Rocky Landing

Residents of this seaside neighborhood are about to be joined by a 1,000-acre port facility

Also getting involved is attorney Jim Blackburn, one of Houston's leading ecological lawyers. The proposed port "poses a major environmental threat to the Galveston Bay system," he says.

Blackburn and others want the Port to build their new facility at Texas City, which has been pushing to expand its port.

"They do need to look at a regional port, and Texas City is the place," says Sharron Stewart, a Lake Jackson environmentalist who teamed up this year with Blackburn to stop a proposed golf course in her city that would have been built in an ecologically sensitive forest used by migratory birds. "But Texas City isn't in Harris County, and it's one of those competitive things. The attitude you get is, 'How dare you suggest that we do it some other way than we've planned?' "

These are frustrating, if exciting, times for George Williamson, managing director of the Port of Houston. He can look out his fourth-floor window at the Port's offices near the 610 Loop's Ship Channel Bridge and see something that wouldn't have been conceivable just a few years ago -- stacks and stacks of containers, overflow from the Barbours Cut facility that's 25 miles away.

The container business is absolutely booming these days, and the Port of Houston is angling aggressively to remain a major player.

"Containers," to the rest of us, are what goes on the back of semi trucks. Filled with every conceivable type of good, from furniture to stereos to clothes, they can be transferred easily from a ship to a train or truck by large computer-operated cranes. Those cranes have largely wiped out the stevedore system that once made unloading a ship a labor-intensive, days-long operation. A ship can now be emptied in hours.

Los Angeles and Long Beach rule container traffic on the West Coast; in the East it's Norfolk, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina. For ships using the Gulf of Mexico as an easy entrance to America's heartland, Houston is in high-stakes competition with New Orleans.

And Houston is winning. More than half the container traffic in the Gulf comes through the port -- enough traffic that Barbours Cut is over capacity.

And right now -- as shipping companies merge, consolidating their operations into one port or another -- it's a bad time to be over capacity.

In fact, as Williamson glances at his watch during an interview, waiting patiently in a nearby room are representatives of a large Asian shipper. With business slumping in that part of the world, they want to use their idle ships to haul cargo between America and Europe, and are looking for a place to base themselves.

It's a potentially lucrative deal. Container terminals can generate up to $15 million a year in revenue for a port, and the more containers moved, the more money coming in.

"These guys are talking about 50,000 containers a year," Williamson says hungrily. Barbours Cut handles a maximum of 700,000 containers annually.

Normally, Williamson would be confident he could sell Houston over New Orleans -- "It's a day up the river to get to New Orleans, and a day down the river, and these ships are expensive, and they don't want to do that," he says -- but these days he's got a problem. He's got no room for more business.

The Port of Houston has leased space at the Port of Galveston to handle its overflow, but customers are leery of the extra distance and the facilities on the island.

"With Barbours Cut, trucks generally can do two-way traffic; they can bring containers in and then pick up containers to take out," he says. "With Galveston, it's generally a one-way trip, so the cargo has to pay for a roundtrip, and that's generally a dollar a mile. So if you and I are competing to ship goods to Rotterdam, and I have to charge $150 and you can charge $100, you know who's going to win."

"We thought we could buy some time with Galveston, but we can't get the customers to ship there," says Rosie Barrera, director of public affairs for the Port.

Given that, Williamson will have to gloss over Galveston's faults and wow the Asians with a series of pretty colored renditions of the proposed Bayport facility.

"I can tell them the first one into Galveston will be the first one into Bayport, when it opens," he says.

The Asians aren't the only people knocking on Williamson's door. Houston officials have been aggressively recruiting in the surging, NAFTA-fueled South American market, with remarkable success.

Growth has been phenomenal in the last decade, and has accelerated especially in the last few years. The Port of Houston shipped almost 14 percent more containers in 1997 than it did in 1993, and much of that increase occurred since 1995.

In fact, in a study done for the Port in 1993, experts claimed that officials wouldn't have to worry about Barbours Cut approaching capacity until the year 2001. Instead, demand outstripped capacity last year.

So for Williamson, the fact that the Port owns significant acreage on largely empty land in a largely industrial area, in a spot where a shipping channel already has been dredged (albeit one that would have to be deepened, much to environmentalists' dismay), should lead to a no-brainer decision to start construction on Bayport yesterday.

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