The state Legislature should increase its focus on maritime ports and dedicate money to increasing their capacity during next year's session, said state Rep. Larry Gonzales during a House committee hearing Monday.
"When I was looking at the budget last session, I saw some opportunity as you try to solve congestion on the highways that I think rails and the maritime ports offer," Gonzales, R-Round Rock, said after the hearing for a sub-panel of the House Appropriations Committee that he chairs. "I just see an opportunity there to address road safety, road conditions, road congestion — which the governor has asked us to address."
In September, Gov. Greg Abbott outlined his his vision for the Texas Department of Transportation, which included a focus on relieving traffic and building new roads. Gonzales said he sees improving the infrastructure at maritime ports as a way of relieving traffic congestion — if it's done in conjunction with improvements to freight railroads.
"If I bring more and more ships and cargo into the ports, without the ability to then move that from the port onto the highway system or onto a rail system, I really just created a big problem at the ports," he said. "It isn't just bringing everything to the ports, but what do I do with it once it gets to the ports? What does that infrastructure look like to actually get it moving on the highways or railways? Without adequate rail, without adequate highways, it doesn't work."
Other members of the panel emphasized the importance of improving railways alongside the enhancement of ports because it could take pressure off the state's already busy roadways. If that doesn't happen, said Rep. John Otto, who chairs the entire Appropriations Committee, other problems will likely be created.
"I understand the importance of improving the operation of our ports, but if it's not done in conjunction with rail also being on board, to me all we're doing is putting additional trucks on the highway," said Otto, R-Dayton, during Monday's hearing.
The 21 ports along the Texas Gulf Coast handle more than 550 million tons of both foreign and domestic cargo each year, according to the Texas Department of Transportation website. Texas ports generate $270 billion in economic activity and an additional $6 billion in state and local taxes annually, the site says.
Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said he supports Gonzales' efforts to increase funding for port infrastructure.
There is no state revenue stream dedicated toward maritime ports, according to materials provided to the appropriations subcommittee by the Texas Department of Transportation.
But in 2015, the Legislature authorized the Texas Transportation Commission to issue $20 million from its mobility fund for improvements at nine maritime ports. Those improvements included the expansion of roadways and updating drainage and storm sewer systems.
"Texas ports are our gateway to international trade," said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in a statement after the approval of the funds. "The facilities in our ports are crucial and so are the roads and bridges that connect them to the rest of our country. These projects address those links between the ports and our highways, and help maintain our prominence in worldwide commerce."
Patrick charged the Texas Senate with examining transportation infrastructure at the state's maritime ports heading into next year's session, though the House received no such charge from House Speaker Joe Straus. But Gonzales said he's been visiting ports across the state and hopes to make them a budget priority next session.
Gonzales said he's been using the period between legislative sessions to examine the issue "so that next time, as appropriators, we'll be more prepared to offer something for ports" because "there is an education of the body, the members and the public as to what those [port and rail] options actually are because a lot of folks don't know that it's an option."
As part of his research, Gonzales has visited four ports and has plans to visit several more along with members of the Senate Select Committee on Texas Ports.
"I was told last year that if you've seen one Texas port, you've seen one Texas port," Gonzales said. "They're all very different in size and scope, what they're importing and what they're exporting. They're all very different entities."