“If you build it, he will come,” is a phrase made famous by actor Kevin Costner in the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.”
In the movie, the phrase referred to a baseball diamond built in an Iowa cornfield that summoned dead baseball players to life for a game. For dozens of public officials in Fort Bend, Brazoria and Waller counties, the phrase translates into the Hwy. 36A project—a three-pronged plan designed to improve the Port of Freeport, build a railroad line from the port to Rosenberg and construct a new highway from Rosenberg to Hwy. 6 in Hempstead.
The project is designed to create a transportation infrastructure that will attract new, super-sized cargo ships—called post-Panamax ships—traveling through the expanded Panama Canal to the Port of Freeport.
The entire project—if it comes to fruition over the next five to 10 years—would create tens of thousands of new, well-paying jobs and pump life into the rural area west of the fourth largest city in the country, said Fort Bend County Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Meyers.
“We think the Port of Freeport and the [rail] line to Rosenberg and Fort Bend County and [a highway] coming up, all the way to Dallas-Fort Worth, is going to really be a game changer for the state of Texas,” Meyers said. “Texas will have the only deep-water port on the Gulf Coast. It’s got the third largest distribution center [in the U.S.] in Dallas-Forth Worth.”
The resulting infrastructure would create a corridor ripe for commercial and residential development as well as create jobs for a growing population that could reshape the future of the state over the next 30 years, Meyers said.
“There’s a lot of potential opportunities for all the communities along that corridor from Freeport to Rosenberg all the way up to Dallas-Fort Worth to participate in that economic opportunity—distribution centers, manufacturing centers,” Meyers said. “There’s a lot of significant opportunity for people that live in those communities for good paying jobs—which is one of the things we’re trying to create.”
Debbie Thelin, administrator of the Highway 36A Coalition, said the group—composed of several dozen public officials, business owners and investors—are working to both publicize the project and make it a reality.
“We’re trying to bring people together and facilitate discussion,” Thelin said.
Attracting international freight
The goal of the project is to attract international freight to the Port of Freeport, and then transport it northward on the proposed new railroad line and highway. The impetus for the plan stems from the enlargement of the Panama Canal, set to be completed in June. The deepening and widening of the canal will allow larger container ships—carrying more than double the amount of cargo of smaller ships—to traverse the Panama Canal and travel to ports along the Gulf Coast and East Coast.
Those ships currently unload the majority of their freight and goods at West Coast ports, which are deeper and can host the super-sized ships. That freight is then shipped across the country by rail and truck.
Ambassador Juan Sosa, consul general of Panama in Houston, addressed more than 40 public officials and business leaders in April at a forum on the project held at Prairie View A&M University. He told attendees international trade and transportation are critical to the economies of the Texas and Latin America.
“Texas is No. 1 in international trade [in the U.S.] and host to some of the most important sea, air and land corridors in America,” Sosa said. “The West Houston counties of Brazoria, Waller and Fort Bend [counties] share a big water port in Freeport, which will be the only port on the Gulf [Coast] that can handle these ships.”
Sosa said local officials should devote their energy to improving free trade and that creating the Hwy. 36A corridor would have a major impact on the local economy.
“There is a unique opportunity for this region to become the main transportation corridor to the metro area of Dallas,” Sosa said. “By building this corridor and making a logistics center, thousands of jobs will be created.”
Alexander Metcalf, president of Transportation, Economics & Management Systems—a Maryland-based firm that specializes in analysis of the shipping and freight industry, said larger ships are more cost-effective for shipping companies than smaller vessels.
“Small ships are much more expensive than large ships,” Metcalf said. “To get with a small ship to Houston is basically the same price as coming into Los Angeles and then [the freight] being taken to Texas by rail.”
With the population of Texas expected to grow to 40 million by 2035, and an average gross domestic product growth of 4 to 5 percent per year, Metcalf said there will be an increase in demand for consumer goods produced in Asia and sold through e-commerce sites, such as Amazon.com and Wal-Mart’s online division.
If shipping companies can cut costs by delivering goods to a port on the Gulf Coast, it would save those firms massive amounts of money, he said.
Meyers said he and other local officials are interested in meeting with officials from the Port of Freeport, notably new executive director Phyllis Saathoff, to discuss the project.
“We want to meet with her to see where her directives are from the Port Commissioners with regard to how quickly they plan on moving forward with improvements to the port,” Meyers said. “The port is going to have to be deepened, [with] more wharfs [added] more equipment constructed and put in to accommodate the big ships.”
Meyer said once port officials make the decision to move forward with improvements, the next step in the project is to construct a railroad line from the port to Rosenberg.
“Improving the port isn’t going to work if there isn’t another rail line,” he said.
The most necessary need in attracting international shipping companies is providing them with a port that is deep enough and wide enough for the ships to navigate, Meyers said.
Jason Miura, director of business and economic development for the Port of Freeport, said the port currently has a depth of 45 operational feet and recently received approval from the Congress to deepen the port to as much as 55 feet deep.
“We want to have the depth to host post-Panamax sized ships,” Miura said. “We’re making these improvements to receive these vessels.”
The three main goals port officials have set are to deepen and widen the port, expand the container terminal from its current size of 27 acres to 250 acres for more storage of goods, and to construct an extra railroad line from the port to Rosenberg.
“A lot of [the freight] would stay on a train. The idea is a direct connection to Rosenberg and then to Dallas-Fort Worth,” Miura said. “The [proposed] railroad would be a ‘common use’ railroad, open to anyone.”
The expansion of the port would—Miura said—create a significant economic effect on the port and surrounding community.
“[Metcalf] predicted that between Freeport and Rosenberg, you’re looking at creating between 15,000 and 30,000 jobs,” he said. “At the Port of Freeport, we’re looking at 10,000 to 20,000 jobs created between the intermodal transfer center and all the warehouses.”
One of the key aspects of the project is to build a second railroad line over the nearly 60-mile route from the Port of Freeport to Rosenberg, and Miura said to help facilitate that aspect of the plan officials at the port helped create the Brazoria-Fort Bend Rail District last September. The goal of the district is to bring a second railroad line to the area, which is already serviced by a Union Pacific line.
Thelin said officials believe that having more than one railroad line and one company servicing the port will attract big shipping companies.
“There needs to be an alternate rail line,” she said. “No big shippers will come into a port with only one rail line. We really have to get the extra rail line. If there is a monopoly, it looks very easy to stop service [and cause a backup in products].”
The third and final stage of the Hwy. 36A project is a proposed highway route from Rosenberg through western Fort Bend County near Simonton, across I-10 and north through Waller County to Hempstead. However no final route has been set, Meyers said.
“The road itself we’re talking about [Hwy. 36] is currently in improvement now. TxDOT has already got the funding to improve Hwy. 36 to four lanes from Freeport to Rosenberg,” Meyers said. “[Hwy. 36] exists all the way through Texas, it just goes through a bunch of little itty-bitty towns, which isn’t conducive for moving freight traffic. We’re trying to get the freight traffic around [small towns].”
With such high volume of heavy truck traffic, the coalition plans to avoid smaller towns and not create congestion.
“What we’re trying to do is take a route through an area where they have little population now, kind of virgin territory, to miss the densely populated areas,” Meyers said. “That road would go essentially from Rosenberg to [Hwy] 290 at Prairie View A&M and then from 290 to Hempstead and connect to Hwy. 6. It would basically be through Simonton. That’s kind of the general area we’re talking about.”
The first step of a proposed highway would be an environmental impact report on potential routes, said Alan Clark, director of transportation for the Houston-Galveston Area Council.
“We are at the point that we are ready to have a draft environmental impact study [conducted],” Clark said. “We don’t want to delay what we need now. This is potentially a project of statewide importance unlike anything seen before.”
Clark said the environmental impact report process is expected to begin in the fall and also there is a need for thorough and effective discussions with all the communities that are along the proposed route.
“[We] need to have a process that goes forward that allows all the ideas to be tested,” he said. “The communities on the corridor must understand what they’re in for.”
Mary Anne Piacentini, executive director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy, said conservancy officials have attended meetings for Hwy. 36A, and the conservancy has a goal of preventing major roadways through the prairie ecosystem.
“The preferred routes, initially, one of them was called the Prairie Parkway and would have gone right through the conservancy,” Piacentini said. “Our point [to planners] was [you are] already identifying roads well before they’ve done a [environmental impact] study. That was like putting the cart before the horse.”
Public Officials React
Improving the Port of Freeport and creating the infrastructure network necessary is a project that is beneficial to the region, public officials said.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told forum attendees in April that although he is in favor of all the ports in the Greater Houston area working together, he feels improving the Port of Freeport makes the most sense.
“As we talk about ships getting larger and larger and larger, it makes a lot more sense to dredge 6 miles to Freeport than go 50 miles to the Port of Houston,” Emmett said. “We have to find a way to get freight farther away from congested urban areas.”
U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, who represents portions of Fort Bend and Brazoria counties, said he is in favor of the Hwy. 36A project and improvements to the Port of Freeport.
Olson said that although the Port of Houston is one of the top ports in the country, the build up of silt in the shipping channel has kept the depth between 40 and 45 feet deep and regular dredging is required from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The Panama Canal is about to be wider and deeper—all those Panamax ships are going to be punching through to the Gulf [of Mexico] and looking for a place to park and offload their goods,” Olson said. “We should be that port, but if we have this low channel, that’s only 42 feet [deep] or less, those big ships have to park out [at sea] and offload their material to another ship.”
The Port of Freeport is similar to the Port of Houston, Olson noted, but Freeport has more beneficial attributes for development than the Port of Houston.
“[The] Port of Freeport is a microcosm of the Port of Houston—the same industries, the chemical plants, the refineries. Dow Chemicals is huge down there,” he said. “[The Port of Freeport is] 45 feet deep there. [The Port of Houston is] only 42 feet deep. [Freeport] is 4 miles from the Gulf to the piers. Port of Houston is 50 miles. Those guys get their offload and onload quicker than the guys the [Port of] Houston.”
Olson said the Hwy. 36A project would allow freight to get to I-10 quicker and easier than traveling through the congested Greater Houston area.
“Once you get toward I-10, you’ve got the world,” he said.
Katy City Administrator Byron Hebert said that although the proposed Hwy. 36A project does not travel directly through the city, it would most likely be situated on the immediate western edge of Katy and benefit the city.
“[The proposed route] is just outside of where we have annexed. We are all for Hwy. 36A and the coalition,” Hebert said. “It’s needed. There will be opportunities along Hwy. 36A and I-10—that development will impact the city.”