Nearly two weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott’s office said the state had $3.2 billion in hand to start construction of a long-hoped-for coastal barrier system, one of the project’s most public advocates cast doubt on whether the money actually had been secured for the project locals envision.
During a Feb. 12 news conference in Houston, Abbott delivered an update on the state of federal Hurricane Harvey recovery funding allotted to Texas.
While the event was mostly about the types of federal assistance that would be available to Texas cities in coming months, Abbott also said the state had received billions for other projects, including $3.2 billion to get a coastal spine project underway.
Responding to a follow-up question from The Daily News, a spokesman for Abbott’s office said $3.2 billion had been allocated specifically for the spine.
At the time, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry — who was at the news conference — said his understanding was that the money would be available for the spine project.
Since the conference, however, there’s been little talk about the spine, for which local officials have spent years advocating as a way to prevent massive damage in the Houston area by blocking coastal storm surge.
Abbott’s office did not respond to follow-up questions about more details of the plan.
On Friday, Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, said his understanding about the money Abbott mentioned was that it’s a potential funding source for the coastal spine, not a secured source.
“That $3.2 billion is sitting there, and you have to apply for it,” Mitchell said.
The partnership is one of the major groups that lobbies on behalf of the coastal spine. Its members say a barrier with a gate at the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel would prevent devastating storm surge from entering Galveston Bay and the channel that could cause billions of dollars of damage.
The money allocated by Congress was designated to fund projects in Texas that have been recommended by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mitchell said.
The corps has not approved a design for the coastal spine. A preliminary proposal is expected in May.
There is a project, approved years ago, for levee improvements to be built on the coast between Sabine Pass and Galveston Bay, Mitchell said. Some might see that project as connected to the coastal spine, but its origins are different, he said.
“It has literally been in the works for 12 years,” he said.
Sharon Tirpak, deputy chief of the corps’ Galveston District project management branch, said the projected cost of the Sabine Pass to Galveston Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management and Ecosystem Restoration Project was $3.2 billion.
“It recommends improvements to the existing Freeport and Port Arthur Hurricane Flood Protection Systems and 27 miles of new levee and flood walls in Orange County,” Tirpak said. “At this point, though, we have not heard what projects may receive funding from the supplemental bill.”
Where that leaves the coastal spine, as locals understand the project, among funding priorities is unclear, Mitchell said.
Local groups like his need to continue to campaign for the corps and the state to finish a study of the spine, so that it could be eligible for the billions Abbott mentioned before the money is gone, he said.
“Everybody is going to go after that money,” Mitchell said. “Whoever has a shovel-ready project is going to go after that money.”