Local officials say they don’t know how a state request for Hurricane Harvey relief money came to assert the San Luis Pass Bridge had been destroyed, but stand by the idea that the federal money could be used to rebuild the aged structure.
Meanwhile, a group that successfully challenged a state plan for spending federal disaster money after Hurricane Ike said it was vetting the Harvey request for projects that wouldn’t provide real hurricane relief.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s office Oct. 31 released a 300-page document outlining $61 billion in projects the state hopes will be funded with federal relief dollars. Each proposed project includes a description, the benefit that would come from funding the project and the return on investment the project would provide.
The description of the Galveston County San Luis Pass Bridge Project requests $135 million, and suggests the funding come from a transportation infrastructure source, or from disaster recovery money awarded through FEMA or through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s disaster recovery block grant program.
The bridge is twice described as “destroyed” in the report by the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas.
That’s incorrect, however, and the bridge sustained no significant damage during the storm, County Engineer Michael Shannon said.
“It’s still safe to the public,” Shannon said.
The county is working with the governor’s commission to correct the project description, officials said. It’s not clear where the notion the bridge was destroyed came from.
In early October, the county sent to the commission a list of local projects that might qualify for federal disaster assistance. The county’s list included the San Luis Pass Bridge, but did not describe it as “destroyed.”
The project is included on the county’s list because some think a replacement bridge could be part of a surge barrier meant to protect Galveston Island during future storms, Precinct 4 Commissioner Ken Clark said.
Clark said he envisioned a combination land bridge — one built partially on jetties jutting into the San Luis Pass — and a lift gate stretching across the pass that would create a storm surge barrier.
“We could include that as part of the coastal surge protection,” Clark said. “In a rising water event we could drop the doors and create a barrier that would keep storm surge out of the back side of the bay.”
There’s wide agreement the San Luis Pass Bridge is in need of repairs. County commissioners in February received a report that the bridge was in “fair” condition. At the time, Shannon asked commissioners to pay for a more detailed evaluation, but they declined to do so.
The bridge in 2004 underwent $9.4 million in repairs that were supposed to last between 15 years and 20 years, Shannon said.
The idea of a replacement bridge has come up before. In 2003, the cost for a new bridge was estimated to be $24 million. Clark said he didn’t know why the new proposal calls for five times that amount, but noted current estimates for a new, shorter Pelican Island Bridge are between $65 million and $121 million.
It is too early to say whether the project would qualify for any type of Hurricane Harvey relief.
Abbott said he had been promised a new relief funding bill by the middle of November, but Congress might not vote on another package until December, when a must-pass bill to continue funding the federal government will come up.
Some of the items on the state’s $61 billion list are drawing scrutiny from outside observers.
John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, said his organization was compiling a list of projects with questionable connections to Hurricane Harvey recovery.
“I have a sense that there are a number of projects on that $61 billion list that fall into the category of general public works wish-list projects,” Henneberger said. “We want to make sure that legitimate hurricane damages are funded on a priority basis.
“If there are families who need disaster recovery assistance to complete the repairs on their homes, those certainly ought to take precedent.”
After Hurricane Ike in 2008, Henneberger’s group and others challenged some projects for which local governments had sought federal funding. The effort led to an agreement that guaranteed more funding for low- and moderate-income housing projects.