With a new legislative hurdle to overcome before a new bridge to Pelican Island can be built, county commissioners today will discuss whether they even want to continue trying to make the long-discussed project happen.
Local officials last week were outraged to learn that a rider had been inserted into the state’s proposed budget that effectively blocks Galveston County’s plans for a new bridge.
The rider, inserted at the request of Texas A&M University, requires that the Texas Department of Transportation receive special permission from the state’s Legislative Budget Board before funding a bridge that leads to a road through Texas A&M University at Galveston’s campus on Pelican Island.
“It’s potentially in jeopardy,” said Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, the elected official who has worked the most to bring the bridge project to fruition. “There’s no guarantee the Legislative Budget Board will sign off on it.”
For most of this year, county officials have laid the groundwork for a new bridge from Galveston Island to Pelican Island that follows the same path as the current drawbridge, which was built in 1957.
The university has opposed such plans and would prefer that a new bridge lead to the north of campus, officials have said. While the Seawolf Parkway runs through the campus, school officials say the road poses a risk to the school and that a new bridge should divert industrial traffic around campus.
While the budget rider doesn’t explicitly block a bridge that leads through campus, county, city and university officials said they believed the board would be unlikely to approve spending on a project that’s opposed by a powerful entity like Texas A&M University.
Local officials were angered by Texas A&M’s efforts to block the bridge plan, because they’d long hoped the school would find some way to help fund the project.
University officials said they don’t have the ability to fund part of the bridge project, but local officials said they had hoped the school could have used its influence in Austin to help the bridge get funded in a way it could accept.
The county has long preferred building a $91 million bridge that leads to north of campus, but lacked a path to funding that plan, and earlier this year moved on to planning a $77 million bridge in the current alignment.
The county received an $18 million grant from the Houston-Galveston Area Council for the project, as well as a $45 million commitment from the Texas Department of Transportation to fund a new bridge.
On Friday, Clark also suggested that if the school could not pay for part of the bridge, stakeholders could have worked to design a road on its campus to redirect traffic.
“We’re not asking you to help pay for the bridge, all we’re asking you to do is to pay for your part out on your campus,” Clark said. “They talk about how they don’t pay for roads, but they can pay for parking lots and roads on their campus.”
An alignment that snakes around would be less efficient than other plans, but might still be feasible, Clark said.
School officials said last week they still hope to find a plan that works for everyone.
Officials have asked the Texas A&M Transportation Institute to analyze the bridge issue and to work with the city and county to try to find more ways to fund the project, said Col. Mike Fossum, the chief operating officer of Texas A&M University at Galveston.
But the project might be on a ticking clock. The $18 million grant from the area council is contingent on the county reaching an agreement with the transportation department to become the local partner for the project.
With the state’s ability to move forward with the project now in jeopardy, it’s unclear whether the county will still sign on to sponsor the bridge. The loss of commissioners’ support would be another blow to the project, as the county’s connection to the Pelican Island Bridge is tenuous.
The bridge is owned by Galveston County Navigation District No. 1 and is within the Galveston city limits. It is not part of the state highway system, though the transportation department does provide maintenance funds for “off-system” bridges.
The county’s support for the new bridge is based on the belief that a new bridge will lead to more economic development on Pelican Island. It remains to be seen how much longer commissioners want to spend on the project, officials said.
“I have spent a lot of time, energy and effort on this,” Clark said. “As some of my family members would say: not my monkey, not my circus.”
Commissioners will discuss the bridge project during a workshop meeting today. The commissioners court meets at 9:30 a.m. in Galveston.