The Global Cities Initiative (GCI) Exchange, a joint project of Brookings and JP Morgan Chase, is a network of metro areas across the country developing strategies to boost global trade and investment. At the core are 28 U.S. metropolitan areas creating integrated plans for export and foreign direct investment. In Texas, Houston and San Antonio are part of GCI, which is a five-year initiative.
In 2016, the Greater Houston Partnership, which oversees the GCI grant, launched the Metro Export Plan (MEP) to develop Houston’s regional strategy. The plan aims to increase the number of Houston firms that export by helping them connect to existing services and by growing global markets. The Greater Houston Partnership says there is a link between increased exports and job growth.
Exports from Houston have nearly doubled since 2003, led by the energy sector. But with declining oil prices, energy exports are slowing. The MEP recognizes that Houston can’t be dependent upon one sector, and must diversify its exports. The Brookings Institution says there are significant opportunities to grow exports in non-energy areas. Instead of relying on Mexico and Brazil as the main export destinations, Houston businesses could make Asia — especially China and South Korea — an important target. To do that, businesses that could be exporting need to engage in better marketing, education and training programs, which are available, but not well known.
How will MEP meet those objectives — what’s their strategy? First, promote and market Houston’s global advantages to grow exports and attract trade and investment. Next, facilitate and enhance Houston’s international trade ecosystem by coordinating export resources and strengthening support systems. Third, catalyze exporters by focusing on targeted small to medium-sized goods-producing firms. And finally, ensure the needs of freight forwarders are integrated into the regional transportation planning process.
HERE COMES THE CARGO & PORT HOUSTON IS READY
For a Texas business currently exporting, or one considering an international export growth strategy, Port Houston is a logical shipping point. There are several factors driving the rapid expansion taking place there. First is the 2016 expansion of the Panama Canal and the increase in imports into Houston from East Asia and other global tradelanes; second, the expected increase in freight from the surge of plastic resins that will be manufactured in the region; and third, the potential recovery of energy-related cargo.
How is Port Houston dealing with the increasing demand, and what can business owners expect? At the Port, containerized cargo is a major growth area, with total increases in volume of more than 8 percent projected by 2017 compared to 2016. Export loads are projected to be up 13.4 percent, while import loads will increase 6 percent. Empty container movement is slated to be up 2.5 percent.
From an operational standpoint, Port Houston has been making numerous operational efficiency improvements to handle the 3,000 trucks moving through the facility daily. To get trucks in and out and reduce idling and turn time, there are state-of-the-art truck gates at facilities.
Optical Character Recognition technology is used at the port’s container terminal gates. OCR can read the chassis number of the truck and allows virtually seamless and speedy check-in for truck drivers picking up or delivering containers at the terminals. Also in use is a bilingual mobile app allowing truck drivers to check the status of the container they need to retrieve, which means there is little wait time.
Gate hours were extended in 2016, and plans call for them to be extended further in 2017 to stay ahead of the demand curve.
Will the Port keep up with increasing demand? Strategic projects make up the majority of the 2017 capital plan, focused primarily on container terminal capacity and efficiency. A total of $54 million is budgeted for those projects. Another $8 million is slated for recapitalization projects, investments required to sustain high service levels and enhance productivity. A total of $5 million will go to channel projects for development at container terminals and Dredged Material Area Management (DAMP) areas, with $6 million more on tap for remaining projects that include maintenance equipment and other replacements.