The Port of Harlingen’s Impact on the Local Economy

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Help wanted signs have become a staple at businesses in the Rio Grande Valley, as well as in other cities in Texas. Most, it seems, have pointed their fingers at the continuing COVID-19 pandemic that forced many businesses to lay off or furlough employees or close their doors in early 2020.

However, it seems it’s a different story at the Port of Harlingen, where according to Port of Harlingen Director Walker Smith, operations and revenue are rising steadily.

“We are very fortunate to be able to say we were not affected by COVID-19 in terms of opportunity and growth,” Smith said. “We know not many industries can say the same, but the Port of Harlingen has not hit major barriers others are experiencing due to the changes COVID-19 placed on all of us.”

According to the Harlingen Port Authority’s website, the port imports and exports commodities via water, rail, and highway that total in excess of $1 billion and generate more than $17 billion in tax revenue that all flow into the local economy. The port also employs more than 4,600 personnel, either directly or indirectly.

“We broke 3 million tons of commodities this past fiscal year, a new record for the Port of Harlingen,” Smith said. “We are a landlord port, so all tenants and partners handle their own terminals and operations across our docks. While we cannot give an account of how their operations are, or were, impacted, it is not reflected in their throughput of transporting goods.”

There are 15 tenants at the Port of Harlingen that move goods through the port, which include agricultural goods, petroleum, and other commodities. Smith adds that they continually receive inquiries from businesses with interests in Mexico that are interested in relocating to the port.

Meanwhile, petroleum and gasoline transport has also remained uninterrupted during the pandemic. In fact, Smith says the port experienced an increase of 29% in petroleum tonnage from the fiscal year 2019-20 to 2020-22.

“Since the start of the pandemic, trade, which includes crossing gasoline and petroleum, has been deemed ‘essential travel’ by the U.S. and Mexico governments,” Smith said.

In July 2019 — approximately nine months before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — the Port of Harlingen unveiled its master plan, which addressed areas related to business growth and diversification, infrastructure improvements, and multi-modal transport, which would be addressed through 2024.

Last year, the Port of Harlingen broke ground on five key infrastructure projects that were funded through a $5.3 million Rider 38 Grant by the Texas Department of Transportation.

Those infrastructure projects include:

  • FM 106 at Cemetery Road
  • FM 106 Extension
  • Port Road
  • Port Road Near the Dock and NB Extension
  • Robles Road

“We have already seen improvements in traffic and vital use of the road expansions that we are able to utilize,” Smith said in a September 2021 news release. “As projects are completed, we anticipate an even more significant improvement in truck traffic and movement for not only our tenants, but the through traffic that crosses the port every day.”

Those improvements are expected to be completed in April 2022.

The work taking place at the second-largest port in Cameron County, as well as other ports in the United States, has drawn the interests of local, state, and national leaders, particularly after some ports on the West Coast continue to deal with massive backlogs as supply vessels remain at sea.

Smith said it’s because of these issues that leaders at every level of government take an active role in the state of the economy’s supply chain and find positive solutions to avoid any more disruptions.

“More interest in how to improve supply chains will create more opportunity for marine port infrastructure funding and improvements,” he said. “We are excited about what this could mean for all ports and transportation.”

Bryan Kirk