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Modeling seeks to minimize impacts of closures on Houston Ship Channel

Faculty members at Lamar University in the Center for Advances in Port Management, are tailoring a tool in the planning “tool kit” to help address an upcoming, major disruption to traffic through the Houston Ship Channel (HSC).

Dr. M. HamidiBecause the Port of Houston is the nation’s busiest in foreign waterborne tonnage, third in terms of foreign waterborne commerce value and the leading port in petrochemical tonnage, minimizing delays is essential. When Mother Nature, or anything else, disrupts traffic in the channel, the nation’s economy takes note. Most recently, Hurricane Harvey’s relentless pounding of the entire Texas coast increased the price of gasoline across the country.

When the Houston Ship Channel is closed, arriving vessels must wait at anchor in Galveston Bay and outgoing ships must remain at berth, tying up the terminal as well as the vessel. Delays in waterborne commerce mean extra fuel consumption by the vessel, increased environmental impact, inefficient use of terminal resources, and rising costs not only to the cargo owner and but also to the price of doing international waterborne commerce with the US.

Managers of Texas ports and waterways must plan for operational disruptions, not only from the impact of storms, but all-hazards. To help them do so, Assistant Professor Maryam Hamidi, in collaboration with Associate Professor Weihang Zhu, has applied optimization and simulation modeling to assist HSC stakeholders and the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) as they seek to minimize impacts on the ship channel due to closures resulting from the reconstruction of the Beltway 8 Bridge.

Hamidi, who holds a Ph.D. in systems and industrial engineering from the University of Arizona, is an active researcher in port and terminal operations, reliability engineering, maintenance and inventory optimization, and game theory. She joined LU’s faculty in 2016 in the Department of Industrial Engineering. Zhu holds a Ph.D. in industrial and system engineering from North Carolina State University and joined Lamar’s industrial engineering faculty in 2005.

The replacement of the Sam Houston Tollway between SH 225 and IH 10 will consist of three phases: construction of a new southbound bridge; demolition of the current bridge; and construction of the northbound bridge across the Houston Ship Channel. The new bridge, one of five bridges that cross the channel, will provide four toll lanes and full shoulders in each direction. In addition to removing the supporting towers that are inside the channel, the new bridge deck will be higher to allow larger vessels to transit the channel. The total project cost is expected to be $962 million.

Determining how to schedule these closures to minimize the impact on operations and vessel traffic along the Houston Ship Channel was critical and needed to be as clearly and accurately forecast as possible. The Houston Ship Channel is a very complex system, and solutions to challenges are not typically readily apparent without the use of analytical decision making tools. 

Evidencing the new Center’s close ties to the port industry, Hamidi, with the encouragement of Erik Stromberg, the Center’s executive director, approached the Lone Star Harbor Safety Committee (LSHSC) and offered to help. Working closely with the Houston Pilots and a special LSHSC working committee, Hamidi developed a computer model, input data received and successfully demonstrated her approach to the working committee.

Hamidi and her team have worked with the Houston Pilots since 2016 to mitigate the consequences of the required closure of the HSC by modeling and analysis of the vessel traffic and operations. They have modeled more than 30 terminals above the Beltway 8 bridge which would be impacted by a bridge-related channel closure.

In August 2017, the Houston Pilot Association approached the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) regarding employing the services of Lamar University’s Center for Advances in Port Management to model channel closures scenarios.

These scenarios predict vessel traffic delays associated with different channel closure windows. Lamar University’s exemplary program performed the evaluation of the daytime impacts. Encouraged by the potential the initial model demonstrated, a second phase of her study addressing nighttime closure models, has been run to evaluate overall impacts. The assignment has been completed and final results will be presented to the channel stakeholders the second quarter of 2018.

Erik Stromberg summarized the project as a good example of the partnerships the Center is developing with industry. “The combination of good data and operational characteristics received from the industry, with the analytical capabilities of our faculty, facilitates better decision making, increasing efficient and resilient port and waterway operations, which, because we’re in Texas, enhances national economic and security interests,” Stromberg concluded.

Ultimately, the Houston Ship Channel will benefit from Hamidi’s research during frequently scheduled closures due to maintenance, deepening, dredging, construction projects, and to return the system to steady operations after unscheduled disruptions such as fog or hurricanes.