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Officials divided over Pelican Island Bridge approach

Galveston County officials’ efforts to plan a new bridge to Pelican Island received a boost recently when the Texas Department of Transportation pushed a critical deadline back by six months, but the move has left several commissioners and one area businessman debating the best way to proceed with the project.

The department, which has pledged $45 million in federal money toward a new bridge, pushed back to June a deadline for the county to have plans for the project in order, spokesman Danny Perez said.

“After reviewing the timeline and deadlines for moving the project forward, TxDOT agreed to allow the entities involved an additional six months to finalize a sound business plan and partnership for the project,” Perez said.

County officials had been facing a January deadline.

The bridge connecting Galveston and Pelican Island is not a county bridge, but county officials have been leading efforts to replace the aging structure with a new bridge. Galveston County Navigation District No. 1 owns and manages Pelican Island Bridge.

The delay comes as Todd Sullivan, a principal of Sullivan Interests and a member of the Port of Galveston’s governing board, is leading a growing contingent of people calling for a “land bridge” to replace the existing bridge to Pelican Island.

Galveston County Commissioners Darrell Apffel, Joe Giusti, Ken Clark and several members of the port’s wharves board have all voiced some support for the concept.

The Galveston Economic Development Partnership and the Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce have already written letters of support of the land bridge, Sullivan said.

A land bridge would create a strip of land, similar to a jetty, extending across the waterway from Galveston Island to Pelican Island as a foundation for a road and a railway, Sullivan said.

Proponents of the project argue a land bridge would help spur develop on Pelican Island because businesses rely on rail to transport goods, Sullivan said.

A land bridge could also help reduce costs for dredging by as much as 90 percent, Sullivan said.

The port, in addition to several other entities, have spent millions for dredging each year because of silt coming into the Galveston Ship Channel. Land bridge proponents argue that narrowing the channel with the jetties would reduce the amount of silt getting into the port and reduce the need for dredging.

“Todd’s position is that without rail, we’ve had a bridge to the island for 65 years without development,” Apffel said. “What does a brand-new vehicular bridge do for that? We’ve got to have rail.”

The land bridge concept is not without detractors, however.

“Sullivan for the first time recently pitched the idea of a land bridge, but it’s got significant problems,” County Judge Mark Henry said. “For one, it has a $280 million price tag. There are environmental concerns. He seems to think it will be easy, but that has not been our experience.”

Sullivan presented the idea for the first time publicly during a workshop in October and followed that with a presentation to the wharves board Monday.

A land bridge would be a departure from plans under review. In December, the county hired HDR Inc., a Houston engineering firm, to create initial design plans for a new bridge. The company returned with three options, all fly-over bridges with construction and planning costs ranging from $63 million to $121 million.

The firm estimated a land bridge project would cost about $286 million, nearly $200 million more than the preferred plan to date, County Engineer Michael Shannon said in a previous interview with The Daily News.

A land bridge would also require congressional approval to close the waterway to navigation, Shannon said.

“I feel like it can be done for far less than that,” Apffel said. “It’s something that has got to be looked at harder and closer.”

While Apffel was joined by Giusti in calling for the extra six months be used to explore the land bridge concept, Henry said the next steps had to be finding funding sources.

“We need to figure out our funding sources — the city and other partners,” Henry said. “Hopefully Texas A&M Galveston would help. My preferred route takes the bridge away from their campus. That’s what I and they want. And the A&M system has got more clout than me when it comes to state dollars.”

Clark said it might be too late to pursue the land bridge option, but said he wanted to make sure that the best option was chosen moving forward.

Sullivan in Monday’s presentation called for the wharves board to consider endorsing the land bridge plan and to get more involved in the process.

“I love the plan,” Vice Chairman Albert Shannon said. “But personally, before I could sign off on it, I would need to get comfortable with how much everyone is putting in. I need a concept of what everyone is bringing to the table.”

About $5 million in a county bond passed in November is tabbed for the Pelican Island Bridge.

Some trustees, while generally supportive of the idea, were uncomfortable with Sullivan’s role in the project.

Sullivan in the Monday presentation suggested the possibility of forming a public-private partnership to use a permit already granted to Texas International Terminals, but some trustees voiced concern about working on a public project with a private entity.

Sullivan also owns and operates Texas International Terminals, which is near the Pelican Island Bridge and uses slips along the ship channel.

Commissioners planned to discuss all their options Monday as they try to develop a schedule moving forward, Clark said.

Festive Dickens crowds fill downtown shops


Downtown shoppers and shopkeepers shared a festive mood Saturday with Christmas carols and sunny weather for Dickens on The Strand in downtown Galveston.

Six Beefeaters strolled down The Strand, where they encountered two bearded Bobbys. That scene and other Victorian-era costume play opportunities attracted crowds and participants. But that wasn’t the top draw.

“Dickens is more of a shopping event,” Trey Click, executive director of the Historic Galveston Downtown Partnership, said. “A lot of people are in the Christmas spirit for Christmas events. Retail in general is about consumer sentiment. And they are in the mood to shop.”

Ginger Herter, co-owner of Strand Bass and Christmas on The Strand, 2115 Strand, was counting on that sentiment Friday.

“We are fully stocked and fully staffed,” Herter said. “By far, it’s our best weekend of the year.”

Last year, however, was horrible for her and other downtown businesses because heavy rain kept shoppers away and the organizers canceled the festival. But the Galveston Historical Foundation, organizer of the event, scheduled a second weekend for the next week and honored tickets, which last year helped downtown merchants.

“I give complete praise to the Historical Foundation for coming back the second weekend,” Herter said. “We made up.”

Many of the niche shops and retailers specializing in gifts and unusual items benefit from shoppers dressed like characters from Charles Dickens’ books. The three-day event is one of downtown Galveston’s most lucrative.

“It is one that we look forward to all year,” said Amanda King, assistant manager at The Admiralty, 2221 Strand.

King was selling stainless steel wineglasses Saturday. Also, shoppers bought socks for all ages, a perennial favorite Christmas gift, she said.

Customers filled The Jewel Garden, 2326 Strand, on Saturday morning. Owner Darrel Yeatman was wearing a short-sleeve shirt while some customers wore vests and velvet gowns. Christmas carols played from the store’s speakers and shoppers looked at every tree ornament, necklace and stained glass panel on display.

“It’s usually one of our strongest weekends of the year,” Yeatman said. “We’ve got the music playing, but it’s a little warm.”

Despite the sunny weather, men in brocade vests and women with high-necked collars and long skirts promenaded from store to store. They met families of pirates, Puritans and Renaissance fair refugees. A chimney sweep stopped to take a photograph with a little boy in a velvet suit with a ruffled ascot.

Two suffragettes burst on the scene wearing bright yellow sashes.

“Votes for women,” one yelled in a Cockney accent. Other women responded by repeating her words.

A gang of boys wearing kilts and hanging out in an alley looked at first glance like a group in search of an Artful Dodger, a character in the Charles Dickens novel “Oliver Twist.”

They turned out to be the Scottish Pipe Band from St. Thomas’ Episcopal School in Houston. They attended Dickens on The Strand to play the bagpipes and drums, their instructor, Graham Brown, said.

“We come to Dickens every year,” Brown said.

Research from the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau shows that visitors spent $897,527 on hotel rooms for Dickens in 2016, despite the rain, spokeswoman Mary Beth Bassett said. In 2015, the figure was more than $1 million.

“Dickens on The Strand is an important holiday tradition for our visitors and residents alike,” Bassett said. “The Galveston Historical Foundation has done a great job expanding the festival over the years. And, it comes at a great time of the year, during the off-peak season, to serve as an economic boost to our downtown merchants.”

The festival benefits Galveston in many ways, island Realtor Tom Schwenk said.

“It brings a lot of people in,” Schwenk said. “Hopefully, they come back.”

Schwenk has real estate brochures ready for visitors to take home and dream about Galveston for later.

“Getting more people to the island is great,” he said. “You have 30,000 people come, and they can walk by your shops.”

Hallisey makes public return to cheering crowds


League City Mayor Pat Hallisey opened the Grand Parade on Saturday night as the highlight of the 20th Holiday in the Park festival downtown.

“We love you, Mayor Pat,” people in the crowd called out as the Jeep he rode in came to a stop at the corner of Park Avenue and Main Street.

“I’m going to tell you something,” Hallisey said in a microphone. “When I came down Main Street, I saw all the people. It’s good to be home. This is what it is all about. Thank you for being out here.”

The crowd roared back at him with cheers and applause.

Hallisey, who suffered a heart attack Oct. 10, was hospitalized for weeks after several leg surgeries. He returned home earlier this week. The parade was his first public appearance since the heart attack.

His challenges and the challenges that Hurricane Harvey brought won’t stop Christmas, members of League City Proud said.

League City Proud puts together the festival every year. The 20th Holiday in the Park began Friday and continues today in League Park, with most activities centered in the wreath-laden gazebo. The event has featured classic movies, several parades, Santa pictures and 20,000 pounds of snow.

“We need that right now,” Janice Hallisey, the mayor’s wife, said before the parade. “It doesn’t matter what part of the city you live in.”

Twenty years ago, Tommy Cones, Angelo Arolfo, Mary Anne Malfa and the Halliseys started the Holiday in the Park tradition.

“The city didn’t want us to do it,” Janice Hallisey said. Having a parade means more police work and blocking streets, and convincing all the right people to go along with the idea was an effort.

“I almost had to go door-to-door to get support,” she said.

The first year, the parade only had 30 entries. This year, there were 150 entries. The weekend also includes a children’s costume parade and a pet parade.

“We’re just going to have a blast under the oak trees,” Janice Hallisey said.

Affordable Care Act enrollment outpacing last year


More people are on track to enroll for health insurance on the Affordable Care Act exchange, commonly called Obamacare, in the first month of enrollment, exceeding the pace of previous years, according to new federal data.

Those numbers mirror local figures on how many people have sought assistance selecting health insurance.

In November, the first month of enrollment, the Galveston County Health District helped more than 1,340 people with the process, according to the district. In the same period, the district enrolled 219 people in health insurance programs. That number outpaced previous years for the first month of enrollment, specialists said.

The Galveston County Health District is one of several organizations with staff helping people navigate selecting health insurance — and the district only keeps numbers on how many people visit its facility.

During the three-month enrollment period beginning Nov. 1, 2016, and running through Jan. 31, the district assisted 1,799 people, according to the district. The district didn’t have the numbers for the first month of enrollment in 2016, but said this year it appeared that more people were enrolling sooner.

Employees attributed the higher number of enrollees in the first month to the shortened enrollment period, which this year will run Nov. 1 to Dec. 15, said Veronica Rodriguez, a certified application counselor for the health district.

The enrollment period is about half the length of those in each of the past three years and the Dec. 15 deadline is quickly approaching.

“There’s more urgency this year to get in,” Rodriguez said.

There also was a flurry of concerned customers coming in for help with re-enrollment after health insurance providers sent letters saying monthly premium rates would likely triple this year, Rodriguez said.

But in reality, when consumers come in, they are finding their monthly premiums are comparable to last year or cheaper, Rodriguez said.

The higher enrollment activity comes even as Republicans in Congress have tried repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the Trump administration reduced advertising for the program by 90 percent and cut certain subsidies.

“Obamacare is finished,” President Donald Trump said in an October cabinet meeting. “It’s dead. It’s gone. It’s no longer — you shouldn’t even mention it. It’s gone. There is no such thing as Obamacare anymore.”

Alvin Guillory of Texas City purchased health insurance on the federal exchange again this week. He previously purchased health insurance through his work at a Texas City car wash, he said. But he switched to the federal marketplace last year because he found a more affordable plan, Guillory said.

Guillory had paid attention to previous attempts to repeal the program and was relieved it was still available, he said. He will pay about $48 a month for his premium during 2018, he said.

“I’ve had no complaints about it,” Guillory said.

The health district has certified application counselors who go over health insurance plans and costs for people who want help enrolling in the insurance program, Rodriguez said.

“We are able to tell people their copays and do a thorough explanation of the benefits,” Rodriguez said.

Counselors have submitted 316 applications in November, according to the district. The county didn’t have numbers available for how many people have enrolled or repurchased insurance on the federal exchange, only numbers for how many have visited the health district.

Nationally, more than 2.8 million consumers selected plans through the federal exchange between Nov. 1 and Nov. 25, about 30 percent more than in the same period last year, according to a government report released this week.