Texas boasts 28 seaports, dispersed along our Gulf Coast from Houston and Galveston down to Brownsville, including three of the busiest ports in the United States.

Our state's economy depends on the viability of our port system, which serves as a gateway to markets around the world. To bolster our prosperity, we must ensure that Texas' ports remain secure, competitive, and operationally sound.

Each year, over 500 million tons of cargo moves through Texas seaports. This flow of commerce keeps over a million Texans employed and accounts for more than $180 billion in revenue. The wheat, corn, rice, and peas from Texas farms and ranches pass through these portals as they are shipped to dinner tables across the globe.

Ports also facilitate the import and export of many other products vital to Texas' economy, including petroleum and chemical supplies, electronics and machinery, dairy products, and fertilizers, among others.

The Port of Houston, a 25 mile complex comprised of the Port Authority of Houston and more than 150 private industrial companies, leads the nation in foreign waterborne tonnage and is ranked second in the U.S. for total tonnage of cargo.

In 2006, more than 222 million tons of cargo was shipped through the Port of Houston, nearly 80 million tons moved through the Port of Beaumont, and the Port at Corpus Christi handled 77.5 million tons. These and Texas' other 25 ports make an enormous contribution to the U.S. economy.

Because these ports are so important to our nation's economy, we must constantly work to preserve their safety and viability. One terrorist incident at a U.S. port could impact a number of coastal port communities, and the domino effect would have a catastrophic effect on our nation's economy.

The tragic events of 9/11 dealt a serious blow to our internal sense of security, and also revealed vulnerabilities that we are still working to address.

We have made a number of improvements to the safety of our airports, mass transit systems, and major ports of entry. Since 2002, Texas has received over $200 million in competitive Port Security Grants, primarily to secure petrochemical facilities at ports.

The viability of our ports also depends on the maintenance and expansion of infrastructure. I have joined with local leaders to provide resources to extend the La Quinta Ship channel, a segment of the Corpus Christi Ship Channel, to a container terminal site where operations are scheduled to begin in 2009. The funds will also be used to better separate barges and ships within the CCSC, making the channel safer and more efficient.

To maintain the vibrant commerce that keeps our ports in business is to support, foster, and expand free trade. The Port of Houston, for example, handles cargo in and out of northern and southern Europe, the Mediterranean, Mexico and Latin America, and western Africa.

Other lucrative trade relationships, like the one we share with Colombia, should be strengthened through free trade agreements, which would open up more commerce. The U.S. must continue to pursue formal trade relationships with international partners.

Our state's ports are essential to our long-term economic growth and we must constantly work to expand their safety and viability.

Kay Bailey Hutchison is a U.S. Senator for the state of Texas. Readers may contact her via telephone at (210) 340-2885.