With one plan to build a new bridge to Pelican Island apparently dead, local officials still are committed to getting a new bridge built eventually, they said.
How that happens, exactly, remains to be seen and a new solution could be years away, officials said.
Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough on Thursday said the city would not sign an advance funding agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation for the construction of a new $91 million bridge that was proposed to be built between Galveston and Pelican islands.
Yarbrough informed the department’s top local official about the city’s decision, he said. The Texas Department of Transportation did not make an immediate decision about how it would react to the city’s announcement.
“We are aware of the latest developments regarding the future of the Pelican Island Bridge,” said Quincy Allen, the district engineer for the department’s Houston division. “At this time, we are reviewing all available options and we will determine how best to proceed.”
Yarbrough expected the department would begin to designate other projects to receive the $45 million it had put aside for a bridge to Pelican Island, he said on Thursday.
The city cited the money it would be required to commit as part of the agreement as the reason for walking away from the deal.
A draft agreement presented to the city by the transportation department estimated local governments would need to pay $40.4 million toward the cost of building the bridge, but added that a final amount would be based on actual costs.
Yarbrough repeatedly estimated the potential local cost of the bridge to be higher, as much as $50 million.
The city could not enter into an advance funding agreement because the charter prohibits the city from taking on large amounts of new debt without a citywide vote, Yarbrough said. The city would need months to organize and hold a vote, if the council was so inclined.
The announcement the city wouldn’t enter into an agreement with the department doesn’t put the project back at square one, said Jeff Sjostrom, the president of the Galveston Economic Development Partnership, which has helped in planning the new bridge.
“It kind of circulates us around again for another round of conversations,” Sjostrom said. “At the end of the day, this is another lap around the track on the project. The bridge is going to be rebuilt. It has to be replaced.”
Future plans will be able to incorporate some of the work that’s already been done, including million of dollars in engineering and planning work completed by Galveston County in the past two years, Sjostrom said.
“I think all the options are out there and have been explored,” he said
A future bridge might need to be a different design and be oriented differently from the $91 million bridge in order to be more affordable for the city, Yarbrough said.
Instead of a 75-foot-high bridge, the city might opt for something lower, which could limit the kinds of traffic that can pass through the Galveston Ship Channel, Yarbrough said.
A lower profile bridge might allow the city to keep the option of rail service to Pelican Island as well, he said.
A cheaper proposal might also have to more closely follow the footprint of the current bridge, which would bring it nearer to Texas A&M University at Galveston campus.
The university has been advocating for a new bridge to end north of the campus, which would limit the amount of traffic going through the area. Moving traffic away from the school still is a priority for the university, said university spokesman Bill McClain.
“We’ll work with anybody that wants to build a bridge,” McClain said. “We’ve made our position clear where we want it to go. That’s around the campus.”
The university’s campus has grown in size and enrollment in the past 10 years, and there are plans for future expansion, McClain said. The school wants to avoid a road project that would disrupt that growth.
“If it ran through the campus, we’d have to think real hard about what we do in the future,” McClain said.
While working on a new plan, the city might advocate for legislative changes that make building a new bridge less expensive, such as lobbying for the bridge to be considered part of the state highway system.
Roads that are “on system” are open to more funds for maintenance and construction.
For that, the city already turned to Texas A&M University officials for help, and talked about what the school can do in the coming year, Yarbrough said.
“They are willing, I think, to go to the legislature to help the on-system process,” Yarbrough said.
The city should have been more serious about the planning of the bridge two or three years ago, Yarbrough said. With planning beginning anew, he said he hoped the city could come up with a better plan.
“Sometimes, we make decisions because there are extraneous factors that come into the picture,” he said. “There may be some better designs that come as a result of this.”