(Credit: The Port Authority of Houston)
(Credit: The Port Authority of Houston)
(Credit: The Port Authority of Houston)
(Credit: The Port Authority of Houston)
(Credit: The Port Authority of Houston)
(Credit: The Port Authority of Houston)

Janiece Longoria

Port of Houston Authority Chairman Janiece Longoria sat down with Texas Medical Center Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Operating Officer William F. McKeon to discuss the 100-year-old founding vision that led to the 52-mile channel and the future plans that will continue to drive growth and expansion of the Gulf Coast's top container port.

Janiece Longoria

14 Minute Read

Q | Can you tell us about your formative years?

A | I was born in McAllen, Texas, and our home was in Pharr, a town in the Rio Grande Valley. When I was growing up there in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was very different from how it appears now. It was mostly agrarian and there were citrus groves as far as the eye could see. The weather was quite different, as well. Thunderstorms would roll in during the summer from the Gulf of Mexico, and it was verdant and lush with cultivated farm land. Most of the businesses were locally owned. There was little concern for safety or crime. Much of the farmland is now gone, along with the citrus industry. Local-owned restaurants and businesses are now far and few, and the valley is a bustling region that looks as homogeneous as the rest of the state.

Q | So as a young child did you know early on that you would follow in your father’s footsteps and attend UT Law?

A | I always knew I would attend The University of Texas. Both of my parents attended UT, and that is where they met, so everyone in my family is a Longhorn. When I was young, my father took me to the courthouse, so I was exposed the idea of being a lawyer from a young age. My mother was also a lawyer, so it is natural that I would choose that path. My father was a member of the state legislature for 27 years, and we were in Austin often. Coming from Pharr, Texas, I thought that Austin was the most beautiful and exciting city that could exist. I knew that I would attend The University of Texas in Austin, and after finishing undergraduate school, it was a natural progression to attend The University of Texas School of Law.

Q | Are you more like your father or mother?

A | My father was a talented politician and very engaging. He was a born public servant and worked tirelessly to help others and to improve conditions in the Rio Grande Valley. He and my mother were strong advocates for education, and worked on many initiatives to support education for the Rio Grande Valley. My mother was a very optimistic person, a great thinker, and the glue that held our family together. I inherited her steadfast nature, her love of learning, and her analytical skill. I inherited my father’s love
of public service, and his sense of humor. I hope that I reflect a blend of both of them.

Q | What was UT law like before? I know you are very active as a regent. What was it like as you were first walking through those halls, compared to now?

A | I was a regent for the University of Texas System, and rolled off the Board of Regents in February 2011. My time as a regent was one of the most rewarding chapters of my professional career.

I am grateful for the opportunity that I had to study at The University of Texas, and at The University of Texas School of Law, two first-class institutions of higher learning. I consider it the greatest honor of my professional career that I was honored by the Texas Exes as a Distinguished Alumnus in 2013. I am a founder of the Center for Women in Law and the Kay Bailey Hutchison Center for Business and Energy at The University of Texas School of Law. The difference between my time as a student and now is a span of time that feels like the blink of an eye.

Q | What brought you to Houston?

A | A good decision. In-state opportunities for law school graduates were in Houston or Dallas. I wanted to practice litigation and my father suggested that I apply for a position at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office as that would be the best way to get trial experience. I tried countless cases in both misdemeanor and felony courts. In representing the victims of crime, I never had any doubt about the importance of the mission.

Q | I know you’re passionate about leadership and mentoring women leaders. Can you share a little bit about your experience?
A | When I’m speaking to groups of younger people, I remind them that they are the architects of their future, and that their future is theirs to create. I also suggest that they avoid any preconceived idea of what a mentor should look like. A mentor can be either gender, younger or older, and of any race or ethnicity. I have had many in my life, and still value the input that I get today from many people whose ideas I respect. You never know who might give a piece of advice that turns out to be helpful, so it pays to listen carefully to people that cross your path. That has happened throughout my life. There have been, and continue to be, generous people that have come into my life and helped me shape my future. I am very grateful.

Q | What lead to you becoming the chair of the port?

A | It is a great privilege to be leading the Port of Houston Authority at this pivotal time in its history. The Houston Ship Channel opened on November 10, 1914, and we are celebrating its centennial this year. The Port of Houston, just like the Texas Medical Center, is a huge driver of our local, regional and state economies. I have often said that when you power a good idea with effective partnership, there is no limit to what can be accomplished. The Port of Houston is a prime example. The visionary civic and business leaders that championed the dredging of a 52-mile deep-water channel from the Gulf of Mexico to the fledgling community of Houston a century ago understood the importance of having a marine link to the world, so that Texas’ commodities could be traded throughout the world. But the realization of their bold idea to dredge the Houston Ship Channel has brought Houston, this region, Texas and the nation much more than those early visionaries could have imagined.

Because of that bold idea and an effective cost sharing partnership to dredge the channel, the Port of Houston hosts the largest petrochemical complex in the nation; Houston has grown to be the fourth largest city in the nation and the premier exporting metropolitan region; and Texas has been recognized as the leading export state for 13 years in a row. We will continue to grow the enterprise and our future opportunity in alignment with our significant strengths that include our strategic location on the Gulf Coast, the strength and continued growth of the industry along the Houston Ship Channel, regional population growth, our consumer reach, and the quality and scale of our infrastructure.

Q | The story I heard was that a number of hurricanes that had wiped out Galveston led to the port in Houston. Is that true?

A | Certain events came together at the same time to make the dream of a deep-water port for Houston a reality. Early visionaries had been arguing in the mid-19th century for a deep-water port for Houston. There was agricultural export in the region that was barged on the Bayou from Houston to Galveston to be loaded onto ships for export. The early proponents of a deep-water channel could not get immediate traction for the idea of dredging a 52-mile channel from the Gulf of Mexico to Houston because of the expense of dredging a 52-mile channel, especially in light of the fact that Galveston was on the Gulf and a robust export port. Then came the storm of 1900 that killed thousands and virtually wiped out the Port of Galveston, making the argument for a protected inland port more attractive. Shortly after, in 1901, the discovery of oil at Spindletop created additional impetus for a deep-water channel because of the need to move prolific supplies of oil. So those two factors, along with increasing exports of cotton and lumber, created additional traction for the idea in Congress. However, there was still the thorny problem of how to fund such a project. Our local congressman, Tom Ball, for whom the town of Tomball is named, came up with a revolutionary funding concept. With the support of local citizens who agreed to fund half the cost of dredging the channel through the issuance of local bonds, he proposed to Congress the model of private citizens bearing half the cost of the new waterway. When Tom Ball proposed the idea to the other members of Congress, they were so impressed that the local citizens were willing to pay half the cost that they immediately approved the concept. It was called the Houston Plan, and a local match for federal funding is still the model in place today for waterway projects.

Q | How deep is the channel? Is it consistently deep in all 52 miles?

A | The channel is authorized to be 530 feet wide and 45 feet deep, but it is constantly silting from the drainage of rivers and bayous into the channel. Only six to ten percent of the channel is at its authorized depth of 45 feet at any given time. Maintenance dredging of the Houston Ship Channel is a challenge, and we work constantly to manage this. It costs approximately $50 million per year to keep the channel properly maintained at its authorized depth of 45 feet. Approximately $100 million in harbor maintenance tax is collected from users of the channel. That tax is put into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and re-appropriated by Congress for waterway maintenance and other general purposes. We receive approximately $25-30 million per year in appropriations for our channel maintenance. So we are receiving a fraction of what is collected and a fraction of what we need to maintain the Houston Ship Channel. We constantly advocate for a federal solution for this issue. Certainly we make the case and our congressional delegation to a person is supportive of the Port of Houston and our maintenance dredging needs. We will continue to advocate that the law be modified to assure that Harbor Maintenance Tax funds are used for their intended purpose—the maintenance of our waterways and harbors.

Q|How long did it take them to dig the ship channel?

A | It took approximately a decade to dredge the 52-mile Houston Ship Channel. The Channel was opened on November 10, 1914, and came into being the same year that another marvel of human ingenuity was accomplished: the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal celebrated its centennial in August of this year. It is appropriate that during this centennial year for both the Panama Canal and the Houston Ship Channel, that we are both expanding to move into the second century of opportunity.

Q | What’s your vision over the next five to 10 years?

A | To set the context, yearly, 8,000 ships move through the Houston Ship Channel and there are 200,000 barge transits. We are strategically located on the central Gulf Coast as the gateway to the Heartland of America. We have a huge consumer base locally, and within 1,000 miles of our port, we can reach over 140 million consumers. We are blessed with the highest quality infrastructure, and local ingenuity and know how. We are blessed with a great labor pool that works cooperatively with industry. We are innovative and responsive.

We continue to look for opportunities that are aligned with our significant strengths. As we look to the future, we are undergoing a petrochemical manufacturing renaissance along the Gulf Coast because of prolific quantities of shale gas for feedstock. Our petrochemical industry partners are investing $35 billion in additional manufacturing infrastructure through 2015, and have advised us that they expect their exports of plastic resin and other petrochemical products will double or triple in the next two to five years.

So of course we are getting ready for that expanded opportunity for exports. We are dredging our facilities at both the Bayport and Barbour’s Cut container terminals to meet the need to accommodate larger ships that can carry more containers. We are also investing $700 million dollars at our older Barbour’s Cut Container Terminal to double the container handling capacity of the terminal in its existing footprint, and to purchase larger cranes for the handling of cargo on larger vessels. We also continue to build out Bayport to assure that we are ready to meet growing cargo demand—both export and import—through the Port of Houston Authority.

We are also actively promoting the growth of retail cargo through the Port of Houston. Because of a rapidly growing regional population, and our consumer reach, we believe that we are a very attractive port for additional retail cargo and retail distribution centers.

Another opportunity is to expand refrigerated cargo imports. The Port of Houston currently serves as a gateway port for containerized refrigerated cargo on a very small scale. When you consider the size and continuing growth of our consumer base, and our strategic location, it is imperative that we expand this business line to get produce and refrigerated goods to our consumer base more efficiently. Again, additional refrigerated cargo growth will also spur distribution and warehousing opportunities and additional jobs for our region. For the Port of Houston to capture a larger share of this cargo, the port region needs more refrigerated warehouse space. To address this need, the Port Authority recently released an RFP for cold storage and warehousing at the Bayport Container Terminal and has received several proposals that are currently being evaluated.

We also work to balance business with environmental stewardship. I have been advocating the conversion of truck fleets in our region to the use of compressed or liquefied natural gas for two reasons First, it helps drive demand for a domestically produced resource, and as a cleaner burning alternative, it contributes to clean air initiatives for our region. To move this idea forward, the Port of Houston Authority has issued a Request for Proposals offering a parcel of land on Port Road near the Bayport Container Terminal for the construction of an LNG/CNG fueling station. Four thousand trucks per day call on our container terminals, and we hope that a natural gas fueling station on Port Road will help spur conversion.

We also stay at the forefront of innovation and technological enhancements to assure that we can meet rapidly growing needs. For example, the Port Authority installed optical character recognition (OCR) at our container terminal truck gates. OCR technology, along with our new gate system, facilitates automatic gate processing, ultimately reducing or eliminating truck wait time. The integration of gate, yard and vessel operations at the Port Authority has reduced truck turnaround times, improving efficiency for our customers and reducing emissions. In addition, we introduced a new mobile app that allows truck drivers to use their smart phone to check on the status of the container that they need to retrieve, improving efficiency and eliminating truck idling at the gate.

Q | Many people may not realize that the port extends 52 miles inland, and not far from downtown Houston. How does the word get out of all of the great things that you do here?

A | Scarcely seven miles from downtown Houston, lies the Port of Houston Turning Basin. The Port of Houston is the top break bulk port in the nation, the top port in the nation for foreign waterborne tonnage and the top container port on the Gulf Coast. And yet, it is not readily visible because of our topography. Centennial activities that will engage the public about the importance of the Port include a PBS documentary and television special, an educational curriculum guide for high school students, the “Stories of a Workforce” exhibit at the Julia Ideson Building, and a centennial commemorative book. In addition, Promote HSC 2014 will host a re-dedication ceremony on November 10th to commemorate the historic date when President Woodrow Wilson fired a cannon via remote control from his office in Washington, D.C., to officially mark the opening of the Houston Ship Channel on November 10, 1914.

Q | What does a typical day look like for you?

A | As chair, it is my role to lead the Commission, and together with the Commission to provide guidance to the Port of Houston Authority staff in their execution of strategic initiatives. I spend much of my day at the Port of Houston Authority offices working with our Executive Director Roger Guenther and other staff members. I frequently present to chambers of commerce, businesses, industry conferences and many 501c3 organizations. I also work to build positive relationships with our elected officials, industry stakeholders, labor and community groups. I am available 24/7 since the Port of Houston never sleeps.

Q | Any closing thoughts?

A | As we celebrate the centennial of the Houston Ship Channel it is appropriate to pause and give thanks, and to remember the great legacy that has been entrusted to us—a legacy that has fueled our economy for 100 years, and that will drive our expansion through the next century. Let’s continue to work together to assure that the second century of the Houston Ship Channel and the Port of Houston is as remarkable as the first.

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