Dredging on the $1-billion project to expand and deepen the Houston Ship Channel kicked off June 1, with work expected to last about 3.5 years in the country’s busiest waterway.

Plans developed by an AECOM-Gahagan & Bryant Associates joint venture with Port Houston and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—known as Project 11 because it mark the 11th time the waterway will be enlarged since the 1850s—call for the channel to be widened across Galveston Bay, for upstream segments to be deepened and for the construction of environmental features.

Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Corp. is working on a $92.5-million contract for the Port Commission, signed last fall, covering the project's first segment. The firm will widen 11.5 miles of the channel where it crosses Galveston Bay from 530 ft to 700 ft and also will use 1.6 million cu yd of dredged material to create a new island for an oyster reef and bird habitat.

The company will use a cutter suction dredge to perform the work. It recently underwent upgrades to reduce nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions, Greay Lakes says.

Work on the first segment is expected to take less than a year, the company has said.

Future phases of the project will include widening or deepening five other segments of the channel and constructing additional bird habitat islands, marshes and oyster habitats. 

The Corps plans to solicit firm fixed-price bids for the next segment of dredging in July, with responses due back by Aug. 2, records show. Officials estimate this work to require between 1.5-2.5 million cu yd of materials with options for another 1-1.5 million cu yd, and a cost between $25 million and $100 million. 

A pre-solicitation synopsis also indicates plans to seek bidders for a smaller dredging phase further upstream. Officials estimate the cost of the future contract at between $5 million and $10 million. 

Port Houston officials say Project 11 will allow the port to accommodate larger vessels, providing economic benefits. They also say the wider channel will improve safety—currently, ships underway in opposite directions through the channel must approach head-on until they are close, and then carefully adjust course to pass without being turned toward each other by hydrodynamic forces, a maneuver known as “Texas chicken.” 

“This project is important on many levels, including improving the efficiency of our nation’s supply chains, promoting navigational safety and creating environmental benefits through the innovative use of dredged material,” Michael Connor, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works projects, said during the June 1 project kick-off event. 

Port Houston officials expect Project 11 to complete in 2025. 

The port is one of several along the Gulf Coast with major improvement plans in the works. In April, Corps officials said the Galveston District would receive an additional $142 million in funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for the third segment of Project 11, which will focus on the Barbours Cut Container Terminal area. 

Millions of dollars more in federal funding will go toward other Galveston District ship channel projects, including the Brazos Island Harbor Project, Corpus Christi Ship Channel and Galveston Harbor and Channel, officials say. 

“A huge percentage of funding in the infrastructure bill for coast construction projects is dedicated to the Texas coast, mainly to the Houston and Galveston investments from this district,” Col. Timothy Vail, district commander, said in a statement when the IIJA funding was announced. 

On May 25, the Corps released its draft environmental impact statement for the Port of Corpus Christi channel project. That plan calls for the existing 13-mile channel to be deepened from 54 ft to 77 ft, and for the channel to be extended 29,000 ft further into the Gulf of Mexico.