Big ships are on their way to Port Houston. With more than 200 million tons of cargo moving through the greater Port Houston each year, it consistently ranks first in foreign waterborne tonnage, imports, and in export tonnage for the United States. However, for Port Houston to maintain its position, it has to modernize to meet the demands of ships coming through an expanded Panama Canal as well as next-generation vessels.

“Staying ahead of the demands of international commerce requires more berthing space, larger gantry cranes, and additional container storage capacity,” said Port Houston Chief Port Operations Officer Jeff Davis. “We have undertaken a $1 billion multi-year modernization program to ensure Port Houston has top infrastructure in place.”

As part of the ongoing modernization and expansion program, Port Houston has once again called on McCarthy Building Companies, Inc. to construct critical projects at its two major container terminals. McCarthy is under a tight timeline to complete a total of three projects worth $121.6 million, including a 1,000-linear-foot wharf rehabilitation and a 43-acre container yard expansion at the Barbours Cut Terminal, as well as a 670-linear-foot wharf extension at the Bayport Terminal.

Also at the Barbours Cut Terminal, McCarthy is undertaking a container yard expansion and modernization to increase container cargo storage capacity that will be required when larger vessels begin arriving.

At the Barbours Cut Terminal, McCarthy is charged with a complete structural upgrade and rehabilitation of Wharf 2 to accommodate larger gantry cranes to service post-Panamax vessels. The 40-year-old wharf structure requires new foundations, a crane beam, and larger gauge rails to widen its gantry crane footings from 50 feet to 100 feet to support the new ZPMC gantry cranes.

McCarthy has been a construction partner of Port Houston since 1991, so the firm is in familiar territory. However, Fitz O’Donnell, McCarthy’s project director, said every project is a new one with its own challenges.

“Barbours Cut is a very busy facility, and it is as if we are operating on an island within the port,” he said. “Every boundary around our projects separates our work from the day-to-day container handling and we typically only have one point of entry and exit. We put a lot of effort into the coordination of deliveries and getting equipment, materials, and workers through security and onto the jobsite.”

Before demolition could begin, the first order of business was to relocate the existing cranes. McCarthy installed temporary tie downs and stowage pins so that they could be stored on an adjacent wharf; these cranes will be dismantled once new cranes arrive. McCarthy could then move on to demolishing a 1,000-foot stretch of the wharf, which involved wire sawing, deep slab sawing, and core drilling. Since the port does not allow for any rubble to enter into the ship channel, McCarthy utilized a demolition system it developed for the previous Phase 1 rehabilitation project completed in 2013 — a custom-fabricated steel frame structure that the team refers to as the “Spider.”

“This unique piece of rigging equipment has allowed us to efficiently remove the existing concrete deck structure in very large pieces, some that weigh in excess of 100,000 pounds,” O’Donnell said.

McCarthy is installing new drilled shaft foundations and structural concrete to support the larger gantry cranes, which will operate on crane rails spaced at a 100-foot gauge versus the existing 50-foot gauge. The crew will also construct a new stevedore support building, high mast poles, and the electrical infrastructure required for three new 100-foot-gauge electric dock cranes.

McCarthy is employing new construction techniques for the Bayport Terminal wharf expansion, using a lightweight fill material in lieu of standard earthen fill to mitigate future settlement in the underlying soil layers.

McCarthy began construction in January 2016 and expects to complete the project in April 2017, just in time to meet the expected delivery timeline of new ZPMC cranes from China.   

Also at the Barbours Cut Terminal, McCarthy is undertaking a container yard expansion and modernization to increase container cargo storage capacity that will be required when larger vessels begin arriving.

The project consists of reconstructing 43 acres of container yard space — 13 acres in Container Yard One and 30 acres in an area referred to as the East End. The project is being constructed in phases with the East End required to be completed and turned over before any work on Container Yard One can begin.

McCarthy started the project in July 2016 by demolishing a 100,000-square-foot metal building located inside the current 30-acre East End yard that served as a storage area for miscellaneous cargo. The company is also demolishing existing concrete pavement in the area and replacing it with heavy-duty, 18-inch concrete pavement for container storage. The majority of the paving consists of roller-compacted concrete, along with a substantial amount of joint reinforced concrete paving that McCarthy is self-performing.

McCarthy is also self-performing all of the site grading, soil stabilization, aggregate base, and trench drain scopes of work. This project also includes new underground electrical service, water lines, drainage, and high mast lighting. The 13-acre Container Yard One is currently used for container storage and will undergo the same demolition and replacement before it is returned to service.

The modernization program is expected to increase capacity from 1.2 million to 2 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) when completed in August 2018.

The Bayport Container Terminal is considered the most modern and environmentally sensitive container terminal on the U.S. Gulf coast. At Bayport, McCarthy is extending current wharf frontage by 670 linear feet to add another ship berth. Known as Wharf 2, this berth is an extension to the 1,300-linear-foot Wharf 1 completed by McCarthy in 2010.

McCarthy’s project scope includes drilled shaft foundations, anchored concrete retaining wall, lightweight concrete backfill subgrade, structural concrete, an elastomeric fender system, new utilities, electrical service, concrete pavement, crane rail system, electrical power trench, and cable horns. McCarthy is employing new construction techniques for the wharf expansion. The company is using a lightweight fill material in lieu of standard earthen fill to mitigate any future settlement in the underlying soil layers.

“Much like Barbours Cut, the Bayport Terminal is an active container facility and we have to operate in a very tight work area. To combat the logistical challenge and staging area constraints, we are constructing part of the new dock from floating equipment and part from land. It takes a unique skill set to operate a barge-mounted crane,” O’Donnell said. “Since we are working over water, all of the materials we use must be transferred from land at the port to water. This means that essentially everything that is delivered to the jobsite has to be handled twice before it is installed.”

McCarthy’s coordination and timeline issues are further compounded by the master Army Corp of Engineers permit that the Bayport facility is under. To ensure that they comply with nitrogen oxide emission controls, McCarthy submitted a plan for each piece of equipment, including engine sizes and projected hourly utilization. The computer program that generates the daily allowable amount of nitrogen oxide emissions for the equipment also recognizes an increased impact of equipment on water. To manage this, McCarthy only puts equipment on water when absolutely necessary.

Cranes for the new ship terminal at Bayport are expected to arrive in the first quarter of 2018, but McCarthy expects to wrap up work in late December 2017.

When fully developed, this state-of-the-art terminal will have a total of seven container berths with the capacity to handle 2.3 million TEUs on a complex that includes 376 acres of container yard and a 123-acre intermodal facility. The terminal’s environmental benefits include preservation of 956 acres of diverse coastal habitat, 200 acres of new marsh, 173 acres of wetlands created or enhanced, and preservation of a 128-acre buffer zone.

“Working with McCarthy Building Companies and others, we’ve begun $1 billion in retrofit at the Barbours Cut Container Terminal and continued expansion at the Bayport Container Terminal,” Davis said. “This work is important for Port Houston and beneficial to the region, state, and nation.”

Information provided by McCarthy Building Companies (