Is seven miles per hour fast enough?

Published 6:19 pm Friday, August 4, 2017

When one thinks of speed limits, they’re usually thinking of roadways. The maritime industry, however, also uses speed limits.

Capt. Chuck LaHaye, president of the Sabine Pilots Association spoke to the regular meeting of the Port Arthur City Council relating to speed limits for large vessels.

LaHaye said the speed limit was passed in 1961, based on a 1923 regulation of traffic. Under the current Inland Navigation Rules Act of 1980, the Sabine Pilots are requesting the city repeal the “archaic ordinance” and replace it with language of a speed limit that is reasonably safe in prevailing conditions.

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Willie “Bae” Lewis Jr., District 5 councilman, asked what does reasonably safe mean.

LaHaye said it’s hard to place a number as a safe speed.

“Every vessel is different, every situation is different,” he said.

Lewis said there is much erosion along the channel, particularly on Pleasure Island, and nobody regulates it.

“Who cites them (speeders)?” Lewis asked LaHaye.

He answered the U.S. Coast Guard does and they use the term safe speed.

Mayor Derrick Freeman agreed erosion is an issue for Pleasure Island. For instance, some cabins on the island are falling in.

“We need a plan in place on what to do with the erosion before the speed limits are changed,” Freeman said.

LaHaye said a deepening project for the channel has been proposed.

“With larger, deeper ships, there will be more erosion,” LaHaye said.

Freeman added the speed limit has been seven mph for the last 50 years and it hasn’t bothered anyone. LaHaye said ships have changed since 1923.

Harold Doucet Sr., District 4 councilman, asked LaHaye why the Coast Guard or the Sabine-Neches Navigation District haven’t come before the city council and request a change in the speed limit.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has the authority on this matter, Doucet said, and they’re fine with the speed limit. He added the Sabine Pilots have an issue with the “archaic language.”

“Is it an unsafe speed?” Doucet asked.

LaHaye said it can be, particularly if the wind pushes a vessel close to the bank if they’re not moving fast enough.

Doucet said LaHaye needs to come back with statistics and information the speed limit is unsafe and not just because the pilots don’t like it. Also get the Coast Guard to speak before the council.

LaHaye said he chairs the navigation committee and it’s been discussed there.

Thomas Kinlaw III, District 3 councilman, asked if any citations been issued the last three years. LaHaye said several pilots had fines assessed against them and there are several violations everyday.

“Is seven mph detrimental?” Kinlaw asked. Yes was the answer.

Kinlaw favored LaHaye’s peers, the Coast Guard and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office who also patrol the channel, to speak to the city council.

Lewis asked if costs were driving this issue. LaHaye said it was not an issue.

“This is about safety,” he said. “We don’t take in economic considerations.”

City Manager Brian McDougal said the city staff would get more information on this and get back with the council.

Another issue related to the water up for consideration was a presentation by Lewis about a Texas General Land Office grant for the Sabine Pass Water Front Access Road Project.

The GLO will fund the road to a beach on the south end of the island near the Sabine Pass Lighthouse. The beach is 1,800 feet long and 60 feet wide.

“It’s a hidden treasure,” he said. “The Audubon (Society) is in support of the project. There’s a rare bird there.

“This will be the next project after the water park is built on the island.”