By STEVE CLARK Staff Writer | Brownsville Herald
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A package of bills aimed at boosting economic activity at the Port of Brownsville and other Texas seaports was filed Tuesday in the state House of Representatives.
The bills, filed by Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, were crafted based on recommendations from the latest “Government Effectiveness and Efficiency Report,” distributed every two years by the Legislative Budget Board with tips for making state government more efficient and effective.
A statement from Oliveira’s office described the package as “a starting point to define the infrastructure needs of Texas seaports, and the level of state investment necessary to make them prosper.”
Included in the package is House Bill 2195, which would create funding for port security and facilities through the general revenue fund. The bill will be accompanied by a $25 million funding rider to be filed with the House Appropriations Committee.
HB 2196 entails a seaport-planning studies program that would determine the scope of the state’s port needs. HB 2197 would create a revolving loan program through the Texas Department of Transportation that could be used for port capital projects.
HB 2198 would establish, by state statute, the Seaport Preliminary Studies Grant Program and also will be accompanied by a $25 million funding rider. HB 2199 would establish a port capital grant program at TxDOT to pay for port projects and will be accompanied by a $1 million funding rider for a TxDOT appropriation.
According to a new report from the Texas Port Authority Advisory Committee, in 2015 the state’s seaports contributed more than $368 billion in total economic value to the state (nearly a quarter of overall GDP). Texas seaports also supported more than 1.5 million jobs in the state, according to the report.
Oliveira, who has a seat on the newly formed Select Committee on Ports, Innovation and Infrastructure, and is chairman of the House Committee on Business and Industry, said dredging is a critical need among the state’s seaports — especially at the Port of Brownsville.
“We have to widen and deepen our seaports if we are to be competitive in the future,” he said. “Enhancing our ports also makes Texas an even bigger economic player, especially with the Panama Canal expansion.”
While channel projects are the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, they require a match from non-federal sources — typically 35 to 50 percent of the project’s cost.
The Texas Legislature in 2001 approved a measure to establish the Port Access Account Fund, to be used for eligible port security and facilities projects, though the fund was never capitalized and ultimately abolished.
In 2015, the Legislature appropriated $20 million from the Texas Mobility Fund for port capital improvements. After the session, however, it was decided TMF funding could be used only for public transportation projects surrounding or connecting to a seaport, but not for projects within the ports themselves.
According to the Legislative Budget Board, almost without exception, Texas seaports sustain themselves through fees charged for handling cargo and berthing ships, the authority to levy taxes within their designated special districts and bond initiatives.
Other Gulf states provide funding for their ports’ capital improvement projects, though Texas does not, even though Texas ports are in competition with ports in those other states, Oliveira said.
“We’re trying to get recognition that the state needs to spend some money on ports,” Oliveira spokesman Tony Gray said.
John Wood, chairman of the Brownsville Navigation District, which oversees the port, said the port bill package underscores the need for capital improvements at Texas seaports.
“Ports alone cannot fund the necessary improvements to keep us ahead of global competition,” he said. “What is at stake is the economic growth and stability of the Texas economy.”