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Causeway third lane reopens ahead of schedule


Drivers traveling to the mainland from the island should have shorter commutes after the state’s transportation agency reopened the third lane of Interstate 45 on Thursday between the bridge and the Tiki Island exit.

Construction is wrapping up on a project to repair the interstate along the bridge to Tiki Island, said Danny Perez, a spokesman for Texas Department of Transportation. On Thursday, the department reopened the third lane of traffic during the day, Perez said.

At night, between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., the third lane will be closed for the coming days as construction crews finish the work, he said.

The project was originally expected to go through late March, but the department bumped up the timeline ahead of the busy spring break season, Perez said.

“We were working with the contractor and being mindful of the folks that use that particular roadway to minimize impact,” Perez said.

The project began in December with major backups on the causeway that led to annoyed drivers.

The total cost of the project was not yet available, Perez said. The department had hired Durwood Greene Construction Co. for the work, he said.

“We certainly anticipate to see some savings from this project getting completed sooner than later,” Perez said. “However, we do not have specific numbers at this time.”

Construction crews began the project by shutting down the left two lanes of a freeway overpass near Tiki Island, while keeping two right lanes open.

Crews also removed the top layer of pavement in the far right lane of the overpass. The work is part of a repair project on the bridge deck and expansion joints of the overpass, Perez said.

The next construction project along Interstate 45 in Galveston County will be widening the roadway between FM 1764 in Texas City south to the causeway, Perez said. The first phases of that work will likely begin next year, he said.

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Experts: Port infrastructure woes a national problem

While Port of Galveston officials ponder where to find a staggering $250 million needed to update dilapidated facilities at the public docks, national maritime experts say the island is not alone.

American ports will need about $66 billion for infrastructure repairs and investments over the next 10 years, according to a study by the American Association of Port Authorities.

Some of the proposed updates include a $3.3 billion crossing at the Port of Virginia, an $11 billion rail tunnel at the ports of New York and New Jersey, and a $750 million modernization project at the Port of Alaska, among others, according to the study.

“To get these things, there needs to be a federal component and investment,” said John Young, director of freight and surface transportation policy for the American Association of Port Authorities.

Port of Galveston officials have long been hamstrung in attempts to fix infrastructure problems because the port only brings in small profits each year.

The port is projected to bring in only about $250,000 in net income in 2018, according to documents.

Port officials are projecting operating revenues of about $37.4 million in 2018 against operating expenditures of $37.2 million, records show.

While funding is likewise an issue for ports across the nation, the federal component remains the biggest obstacle for infrastructure woes, said Rodger Rees, the island’s new port director.

“A lot of those projects in the early days involved federal funding,” Rees said. “But that federal funding over the last decade is less and less every year. They’re pushing more of the cost of infrastructure out to state and local governments.”

National officials are forced to pass on the costs because most of their budget is now spent dealing with costly dredging operations, Rees said.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s 2017 fiscal budget includes $2.7 billion for operation and maintenance of the nation’s waterways, much of that going toward dredging, records show.

Those tasked with maintaining the channels are further hampered because much of the Harbor Maintenance Tax, a federal fee charged to shippers who pass through U.S. ports, is diverted to other uses, said Joan Mileski, the head of the maritime administration department at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Texas ports have received less than 25 percent of the revenue collected in the state, Mileski said.

State budgets aren’t equipped to handle the size of port infrastructure projects, Rees said.

“If you look at the state budget, it’s so little compared to how big of a problem this is,” Rees said. “You’re talking $20 million to $30 million per year. That’s good — all money helps — but the problem is in the billions in Texas alone.”

Maritime officials with the American Association of Port Authorities are hopeful that help may be on the horizon, Young said.

“Congress will take up infrastructure and figure out how they want to fund it and if they will fund it,” Young said.

President Donald Trump in his first State of the Union address called on Congress to consider a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, with some of that money set aside for port infrastructure.

“That’s why we laid out the $66 billion in infrastructure needs,” Young said.

Galveston World War II veteran to attend honor flight


While World War II veterans are part of a rapidly disappearing population left in the country, U.S. Navy veteran Stan Kalla will always remember his time serving in the war.

“I was very young,” he said. “I had some good and bad experiences, but it worked out. I think I was very fortunate, I never got caught in anything. I got out of there and never had any problems.”

In April, Kalla, 91, will head to the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit organization created to honor America’s veterans for their service and sacrifices. The program transports veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at memorials.

“There’s a lot of people ahead of me, more deserving to do that,” Kalla said. “I’ve been to Washington a few times and it’s nice.”

Moving to Pittsburgh after the war, Kalla stayed there with his mother and brothers before settling down.

After the war, Kalla also made sure to keep a few items of war memorabilia in his possession, including an opium pipe.

“Don’t ask me where I picked it up,” he joked.

Before retiring in Galveston, he had amassed an eclectic variety of jobs, including contractor work for parks throughout the United States, Kalla said.

Living through several decades and observing other wars, Kalla hopes leaders will get the country into fewer wars, he said.

“They do all kinds of things and before you know it, you’re in some kind of bad situation,” he said. “I hope we don’t have a lot of those things but that’s not the way it works. That’s your government.”

Wanting to stay informed on current affairs in the country, he still watches the news regularly, Kalla said.

“I want to see what’s going on,” he said. “If you don’t watch it, you can’t complain.”

Recent events, such as white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Va., have been strange to behold, Kalla said.

“It just shows you that in any country, anywhere, you can have things that can take place,” he said. “You have those kinds of organizations around now and it happens in this world. If we’re lucky, we have people that are supposed to be taking care of this country. How you take care of it? I don’t know.”

Her father’s service in the war has always been a significant part of her family’s legacy, daughter Lynn Donovan said.

“They say it’s the greatest generation because those guys came back home to build this country,” she said. “He’s very humble about the whole experience. He doesn’t like to have a big deal made.”

Her father’s service is remarkable and his bravery still astounds her, Donovan said.

“I think my dad and his generation gave us humility,” she said. “We thought it was amazing that our dad, a Jewish boy, would sign up to fight the Nazis.”

Reflecting on his time in the war and his life choices, Kalla is at peace, he said.

“I’m happy that I’m around,” he said. “I’ve got no complaints. It’s been a trip.”

Coming Sunday

Local educators enter national debate about gun policies after Florida school shooting.

Dickinson hires new administrator as it recovers from Harvey

Just more than eight months after declining to renew longtime City Administrator Julie Robinson’s annual contract, Dickinson has named her replacement.

Former Lebanon, Mo., City Administrator Chris Heard on Thursday signed a two-year contract with the city that calls for an annual salary of $120,000.

“Chris’ enthusiasm won us over,” Mayor Julie Masters said. “His experience, his enthusiasm and his energy are things we’re going to need.”

The Dickinson City Council on June 7, 2017, parted ways with Robinson, despite dozens of residents that evening showing up to offer her their support. She since has been hired as city administrator in the Houston suburb of Spring Valley.

That same evening, the council named Police Chief Ron Morales as interim city administrator — and subsequently appointed Stephanie Russell, Dickinson’s chief financial officer, as assistant city administrator, the latter a title she will retain after Heard comes aboard.

Hurricane Harvey, originally deemed spent after wreaking havoc on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, regained strength from the Gulf’s warm waters before striking Texas on Aug. 25 as a Category 4 hurricane. Harvey soon stalled and dumped more than 4 feet of water on Dickinson and neighboring cities.

While many Dickinson residents have returned to their homes after extensive repairs, others await a renewed semblance of normality.

“It’s definitely going to take someone with a lot of energy to take us through the next three or four years as we continue to recover,” said Masters, whose own home is not yet fully repaired. “When we interviewed Chris and the three other finalists, it seemed to us he was really ready to rock and roll and help us keep this recovery moving forward.”

Heard is expected to begin his new duties the last week of March.

“I’m eager to get down there and get to work,” he said. “Obviously, there’s plenty to be done.”

Heard said he intends initially to understand the city’s needs.

“My approach when I get down there involve a lot of listening,” he said. “That’s the first part of the job. Another part will be to find out where there’s consensus and build on that.”

Heard, in interviewing with Masters and the six-member city council, came across as a quick study.

“He’s definitely done his homework,” Councilman Charles Suderman said. “It seems to me he already knows more about Dickinson than a lot of people that have lived here 10 or 15 years know.”

Suderman and Masters said it will be a good while before the city fully recovers from Harvey, which damaged hundreds of homes and an estimated 160 businesses — nearly 140 of which were forced to close but have since reopened.

“I think it’s going to be a five- to 10-year project to get things anywhere near back to normal,” Suderman said.

Heard’s experience with disasters, albeit on a lesser scale, factored into the council’s decision to select him over three other finalists.

“One thing that impressed me was his experience,” Suderman said. “Chris has a lot of FEMA-related experience because of floods and tornadoes where he’s been.”

When Harvey struck, Morales handed off much of the police department’s day-to-day operations to Capt. Melvin Mason, whose performance in that role the chief praised. Now, Morales is looking forward to resuming the job he was hired to do, he said, he’s eager for Heard to arrive.

“I’m relieved to see him come on board,” Morales said. “And that’s an understatement.”

Heard, who in 2004 earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Missouri, began his career in public service the following year as assistant city administrator in tiny St. Robert, Mo.

Two years later, he was appointed city administrator in Ashland, Mo., a post he left in 2011 to take the administrative helm in the Missouri Ozarks city of Lebanon.

The latter was a position he left under duress.

Mayor Josh Ray in May 2017 accused Heard of overstepping his authority: “How can I operate effectively as the head of city government if the person that is supposed to be my right hand purposely undermines me and doesn’t see me as his supervisor?” the Lebanon Daily Record at the time quoted Ray as saying.

Heard had proposed an ordinance that clarified his authority to appoint the city’s community development and public works directors.

In June 2017, he opted to resign — as did the mayor — and accepted a $60,000 severance package on his way out.

Heard’s decision, not surprisingly, came up during his job interviews in Dickinson.

“He was very forthcoming about that situation,” Masters said. “We understand that a situation like that can occur between elected officials and city administrators. Mr. Heard made a decision that we believed was in the best interest of that municipality.”

In Dickinson, Heard will be overseeing the equivalent of 113 full-time employees and a $17.1 million current fiscal-year budget.

The 40-year-old Heard and his partner, Maria Gonzalez Collis, are raising three children, a 16-year-old son and two daughters, 11 and 14.