One of the odder things we’ve seen recently was the San Luis Pass Bridge on a list of hurricane relief projects the state of Texas submitted last week to the federal government for funding consideration.
The idea of replacing the bridge, which connects the West End of Galveston Island to the mainland, wasn’t merely among the 13 local projects state officials sent to Washington. At $135 million it was — with one huge exception — by far the most expensive.
The exception was a request for $12 billion to build a “coastal spine” storm surge barrier, which has been a topic of discussion all over the region for years and has considerable support at both the official and popular levels.
Excluding the “Ike Dike,” the next most expensive line item was $36 million for various road and drainage projects in Dickinson.
The state, on Galveston County’s behalf, sought considerably more money for the San Luis Pass Bridge than it did for the 10 remaining projects combined — $135 million to replace the bridge, just less than $102 million for every other hurricane relief project listed for every place in the county.
That’s odd for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that state officials somehow got the idea the bridge had been destroyed during Hurricane Harvey. County officials didn’t tell the state the bridge had been destroyed, according to documents Daily News reporters have reviewed, so it’s an open question how that stunning bit of misinformation was included in an official request for $61 billion in tax dollars for hurricane relief projects.
State officials have said a “panel of experts” vetted the project list before sending it to the federal government. We’re not sure whether to think the misunderstanding happened despite that, or because of it.
Also odd is the fact that replacing the bridge was not ranked as a top priority on the list county officials sent to the state for consideration. The county ranked its projects AA, AB, A, B, C. The bridge was ranked B, which means a super-expensive fourth-tier project made the final cut over cheaper, higher-priority projects.
To be fair, the San Luis Pass Bridge was just one among hundreds of funding pitches collected from local governments all over the state. It’s a vast list. A few oddities are, perhaps, to be expected, but these are too numerous to go unnoted.
Most odd, perhaps, is that nobody has ever talked about the San Luis Pass Bridge being a key piece of hurricane mitigation infrastructure. You could maybe argue that a new bridge would enhance evacuation on the far West End of the island, but that’s pretty thin justification for wedging $135 million into a list of hurricane relief projects. The same goes for $12 million on the list for a new Pelican Island Bridge.
Both the Pelican Island and the San Luis Pass bridges need to be replaced, but what has that got to do with hurricane relief? Which gets to one of several real problems.
Appearance of the bridges on a request for hurricane relief money looks a lot like an attempt to replace local tax dollars for routine projects with federal disaster relief money. The state tried doing that after Hurricane Ike, which drew a complaint from advocacy groups. The state was forced to rethink how it would allocate the money.
Also, $135 million leaves a large footprint on fairly short list of local project line items. And we doubt that a new Pelican Island Bridge is what keeps people in San Leon, Bacliff, Hitchcock and Santa Fe up at night when they worry about the next heavy rain. What was left off the list to get the bridge on it?
This looks to us like an attempt at old-fashioned pork-barrel public spending made, perhaps, at the cost of other projects that may have actual flood mitigation potential.
• Michael A. Smith