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Port Houston Sees a Decline in Imports and Empties

Houston container terminal
File image courtesy Port Houston

Published Sep 25, 2023 5:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

August is usually a peak month for container shipping, but this year's peak appeared to be quieter at Port Houston. August 2023 saw TEU volume hit 308,000 TEU - a drop of 20 percent when compared against August 2022, when the port handled a record-setting 383,000 TEU across the docks.

Part of the drop is month-to-month variability. The July numbers at Houston were about 11 percent higher (344,000 TEU), and the year-to-date volumes for 2023 are holding steady - only down four percent compared to January-to-August 2022. 

The big difference is in a recent tail-off in empty volumes, which the port attributes to a better balance of import-export activity. Empty export containers are down by half year-on-year, and empty imports have fallen slightly too. This accounts for most of the port's drop in volume.

A 17 percent year-over-year drop in imports also contributed to the decline. The closely-watched West Coast labor contract dispute - which was widely credited with boosting volumes at Gulf Coast and East Coast seaports, including Port Houston - concluded successfully with a tentative agreement in mid-June. At Port of Los Angeles, TEU volume rose by three percent in August, reflecting new "stability and confidence" at West Coast ports following the long-term labor deal.

In a release Monday morning, Port Houston emphasized a bright spot in its numbers: full export containers are up 10 percent over the course of the year to date, reflecting the growth of the plastics industry on Texas' Gulf Coast. The port's Barbours Cut and Bayport container terminals are the busiest hubs for resin shipments in the United States, handling nearly 60 percent of the raw plastic headed overseas. 

“After a record year in 2022, we were prepared to see a slight dip in import loads and export empty containers this year,” said Roger Guenther, Executive Director at Port Houston. “That said, we know the outlook is bright. The Texas economy is the 8th largest in the world and Port Houston is a vital gateway to millions of consumers."

Port Houston also emphasized its ongoing infrastructure expansion program, including the installation of three new STS cranes - large enough to handle post-Panamax ships - and the opening of a new wharf at Bayport. Work is also under way on the Houston Ship Channel Expansion, and by late 2024 more than 27 miles of channel in Galveston Bay will be finished. The project is already showing results in the form of reduced daylight restrictions for vessel transits. 

“This critical project will benefit all who move cargo along the channel by increasing safety and efficiency, and it will help secure jobs in our region,” said Guenther.