There are a lot of signs that Houston's economy keeps improving, outpacing the rest of the nation in a lot of respects. But some of those signs you might not have thought about -- they float every day up and down the Houston Ship Channel.
Before the sun comes up, Houston is in business. On board an oil tanker, we saw firsthand how traffic and product and money steer into and out of southeast Texas.
"It means the world for the Houston economy," said Robert Thompson with the Houston Pilots Association.
Every vessel, regardless of what they carry, is guided by a pilot -- someone who knows the narrow or shallow curves of the ship channel. As well as anyone they know the ebbs and flows of Houston's economic growth.
"We move more traffic in and out of Houston than anywhere else in the country," Thompson said.
According to a 2012 report, ship channel traffic accounts for more than one million Texas jobs and generates more than a $178 billion impact on the state's economy, much of that from a healthy petrochemical industry.
Dispatcher Jeff Mayes said, "When the market's up, the ship traffic is up. When it's down, we're down."
Mayes is a dispatcher for the Houston Pilots Association. He manages the traffic on the channel and says it is an unsung hero in Houston's financial engine.
"When I got here it was pretty mind-blowing how much... You don't think about what goes on in the Houston Ship Channel," Mayes said. "You think, OK, ships coming in and out. But you don't realize what all goes into that."
That economic impact could get exponentially bigger in the next couple of years because of a large engineering project happening in Central America -- the expansion of the Panama Canal.
One of the biggest projects on Houston Ship Channel to help continue this expansion is the dredging, making it deep enough and wide enough to handle the much larger ships that will be coming here after the Panama Canal expansion opens in 2015. The Army Corp of Engineers has identified that project at $70 million. It's an investment those who work along the ship channel say will pay for itself.