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Pelican Island commuters wary about toll plans

By MARISSA BARNETT The Daily News ​ ​ ​

GALVESTON

Pelican Island commuters, including university students and Seawolf Park visitors, quickly raised objections to a preliminary proposal from a private toll company to help finance a new Pelican Island Bridge.

As transportation consultants debate how to pay for a new bridge, the possibility of a public-private partnership was pitched during a July 18 meeting as one way to cover some of the costs of the most sought-after, and most expensive, bridge design.

Plans for a new bridge and how to pay for it are still developing, and there are few details available now about the company’s proposal. While nothing has been voted on or made official, people who frequently commute to Pelican Island objected to the idea.

A new Pelican Island Bridge bypassing most of the campus would be ideal to ease traffic congestion on campus and be safer, said Jack Sharp, an incoming senior at Texas A&M University at Galveston. But paying for the bridge with a toll would be burdensome to university students, particularly those who commute daily, Sharp said.

“We’re already paying tuition and parking, so to tack a toll on would not be fun,” Sharp said Wednesday.

Others worried a toll might discourage tourists from visiting Seawolf Park and the USS Cavalla — or even discourage much-desired economic development on Pelican Island.

Those tourist attractions are already off-the-beaten path and a toll could discourage visitors, said Col. Kelley Crooks, executive director of the Cavalla Historical Foundation.

“There’s concern about anything that could preclude people from coming out,” Crooks said. “We’re sensitive to economic ebbs and flows because we’re so far off the mainstream and people have to make an effort to come visit so anything that further impedes the effort is a concern.

“I just hope we can get more information before a decision is made.”

United Bridge Partners, a Denver-based private tolling company, proposed a plan to partially finance a new bridge with a public-private partnership, said Barry Goodman, president of The Goodman Corp., which the county hired last year to help secure funding for the project. The county has been spearheading efforts to build a new bridge to replace the aging existing structure, officials said.

The plan could include a toll for commercial vehicles commuting to and from Pelican Island, Goodman said. But at other times during a workshop with county commissioners, Goodman implied the toll could also include all drivers crossing the bridge.

The state transportation agency gave the county a January deadline to come up with funding plans or risk losing $45 million the state has committed.

Engineers have so far come up with three different design plans for a new bridge, with construction and planning costs ranging between $63 million to $121 million.

The preferred option — the third — extends farther out into the bay than the existing bridge and joins the island near Texas Clipper Road, bypassing much of the Texas A&M University at Galveston campus. But it carries the highest price tag.

The goal is to raise about $11 million locally for the project, split between the county and city of Galveston, Goodman said. The firm would also seek money from Texas A&M University for the bridge, but Goodman did not give a figure for how much they’re asking the university to contribute.

United Bridge Partners approached The Goodman Corp. about putting $40 million toward the project, Goodman said.

Funding is the subject of an invite-only meeting today between transportation consultants, city of Galveston and county leaders and university officials.

Before the meeting, Galveston leaders said the city is willing to participate and has identified a few different funds from which it might be able to provide money.

“We just need to know to what level,” Deputy City Manager Dan Buckley said Wednesday. “We haven’t seen any plans for the final project yet, but the city is not opposed to participating at some level.”

Texas A&M University at Galveston officials planned to attend today’s meeting. The university was willing to help lobby for money for the bridge, either at the legislature or elsewhere, said Bill McClain, a university spokesman.

“We’ll work with anybody to see how we can help make this possible,” McClain said.

The information about the toll was new to officials until watching the county workshop online this week, McClain said.

“That’s something we would have to study,” McClain said. “We’d have to look at where it all comes down if we did it that way.”

Between 300 and 400 employees commute across the bridge each day, as well as many students, McClain said.

“We understand the public-private concept, but how it would work — we’ve not talked to Goodman about that at all,” McClain said.

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