As the Port goes, so goes Houston. In 1914, the city’s mayor stood atop a naval vessel and sprinkled rose petals into the water to celebrate the opening of the Port of Houston. In Washington, President Wilson fired a cannon to mark the occasion. For the first time, Texas was connected to the rest of the world. The state was open for business. In the past 100 years, every time the port has grown, Houston’s economy has spiked. Today, the fourth largest (and busiest) US port is about to grow again through a multimillion dollar expansion. Brock Lewis P.E., chief construction manager, says the project will help attract and accommodate bigger ships and continue the port’s legacy of driving the region’s economy.
DISCUSSING PUBLIC-SECTOR WORK WITH BROCK LEWIS P.E.
What are the challenges of working with public money in an era of full transparency?
We’re rare: we’re a government agency that makes money. But, we have to be diligent because anybody can ask to review our records at any time. We have meticulous internal checks and balances because we could be audited at any time.
You came from engineering consulting. How are these issues different in a public-sector agency?
Things are slower here, and decision-making is different, but in some ways that can be an advantage. We’re not owned by a billionaire that’s trying to make the playoffs, send their kids to Ivy League colleges, or build a mansion on the company ranch … so we actually get to reinvest the money we make.
How can you turn those factors into an advantage?
We’re taking every opportunity to get more efficient, and we’re realizing that productive change can come to public agencies. We are looking into improving our processes and how we have conducted business for 100 years. We have transitioned senior staffing into early retirement to enhance the growth of our younger staff members, and we’re bringing more people in from private companies who know how things work out in the real world. We’re not as complacent now. It’s the best-of-both-worlds approach. We still have the experience—along with the new blood—to push expansion to a new level.
How will the port become more business friendly?
We’re taking strides so that we don’t make people jump through a ton of governmental hoops all the time. We want to attract business, not drive it away. We’re being more fair and reasonable instead of being so rigid, and that’s helped us achieve a lower change-order percentage on average of 2 to 3 percent. We don’t want to work with entities that just need a job to stay afloat; we want to work with bigger and/or better contractors that can also incorporate our small-business goals into an efficient and equitable solution for everyone.
Wharf 2 at Barbours Cut
After its inception in the 1970s, the Barbours Cut Container Terminal became a leading US container-handling facility. Now, port leadership has authorized $700 million for a total renovation to install larger cranes, stronger wharves, and other improvements to match increasing demand. Four new Super Post-Panamax wharf cranes, standing thirty stories tall, arrived in May 2015 after a 73-day voyage from South Korea. The cranes weigh 1,505 tons each and double the wharf’s container-loading speed. In 2016, an upgraded Panama Canal will open; the wharf project and other expansion measures will ensure the Port of Houston will support an associated increase in traffic and remain a key stopping point for ships.
BROCK LEWIS P.E. ON …
The Import of the Port
“Our growth is vital to the city of Houston because if we don’t grow, we don’t compete, and that means commerce will look to other places and other ports. We need to expand to accommodate bigger ships that hold more cargo. That means our cranes and docks and all other pieces of our infrastructure have to get bigger. One change impacts another. We need deeper water and stronger steel and more concrete to support the size and weight of these modern vessels. We want everyone to distribute their goods here, and growing is a pure business move. We average $200 million in capital improvements every year. It’s all about keeping up with demand and keeping ships coming to Houston. The port itself is at the top of the list for imports and exports.”