Port Houston is moving forward with plans to expand the Houston Ship Channel from the Gulf of Mexico and across Galveston Bay. The Port Commission signed a $92.5 million contract with Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Corp. for dredging work as the first phase of the channel’s widening and improvement Project 11, the company announced on Nov. 22.

Great Lakes Dredge & Dock will dredge 11.5 miles of the channel to widen a portion of the bay from 530 ft to 700 ft, the company says. It will pump 1.6 million cu yd of dredged material to construct a new island for a bird habitat and oyster reef.

The port has worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a joint venture of AECOM and Gahagan & Bryant Associates to develop plans to make the 52-mile channel wider and deeper as part of the expansion project to accommodate larger container and petrochemical ships.

Port Houston is the busiest U.S. port in terms of waterborne tonnage. It says the Houston Ship Channel has an impact on 3.2 million jobs and $801.9 billion in annual economic value, with nearly 20,000 ship movements and 200,000 barge transits each year.

With the current channel width, ships must perform a maneuver known as “Texas chicken”—when two vessels moving in opposite directions approach head-on, relying on hydrodynamic forces to safely pass each other.

In later phases, more than 24 miles of the channel will be widened to 700 ft. The Bayport and Barbours Cut channels will be widened to about 455 ft. Several upstream bayous will also be widened and deepened.

The project will also include additional environmental initiatives, including construction of five bird islands totaling 20 acres in Galveston Bay, the addition of 376 acres of oyster reef pads and three new marshes built totaling as much as 800 acres.

Environmental concerns played a role in picking Great Lakes Dredge & Dock for this contract. The port says it chose the approach with the most reduction in overall nitrogen oxide emissions when it selected Great Lakes Dredge & Dock. David Simonelli, the contractor’s COO, said in a statement that the company is investing $4.5 million to cut emissions from its cutter suction dredge and booster station by upgrading their engineering and installing selective catalytic reduction systems, which treat engine exhaust. 

“Retrofitting our equipment demonstrates our commitment to Port of Houston and supports our goal of reducing our overall environmental impact as we strive to leave the areas we work in a better state than when we started,” Simonelli said.

Dredging on the first phase of work is scheduled to start in early 2022 and finish within the year. AECOM says the entire project is expected to finish by the end of 2025.

The Great Lakes Dredge & Dock contract follows the company's move of its corporate headquarters from the Chicago area to Houston in October 2020.

The Houston Ship Channel first opened in 1914. Its previous expansion project lasted from 1968 to 2005. The channel was deepened to 45 ft and made 530 ft wide through Galveston Bay, and environmental restoration projects were constructed with dredged material.