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.