The local effort to fund a new bridge to Pelican Island was thrown into chaos Tuesday when state legislators proposed new rules that could block the construction unless a small group of lawmakers agrees to support it.
The rule would block the Texas Department of Transportation from funding a new bridge to Pelican Island unless the department received explicit permission from the Legislative Budget Board.
The rule was inserted as a rider in the bill funding the department’s budget at the behest of Texas A&M University at Galveston, officials said Tuesday. The university has opposed construction of a bridge aligned to continue routing industrial traffic through its Pelican Island campus.
“We didn’t want to be here,” said Col. Mike Fossum, the chief operating officer of Texas A&M University at Galveston.
The university requested the new rule be proposed in recent weeks, after apparently failing in an effort to get increased funding for the university’s preferred alignment for the bridge around its campus included in the state’s budget.
University officials said the rule was meant to stop a project they think would undermine the safety of students, faculty and staff.
“We’re interested in getting the bridge built, we just want it done in the safest way that protects our students,” said John Otto, the director of local government relations for the Texas A&M University System. Otto, a former state representative, said he wrote and submitted the rule that this week appeared in state budget documents.
The new rule appeared in a document called an issue docket published Monday by the Conference Committee on House Bill 1, the group of legislators from the Texas House and Senate who are working to create Texas’ biennial budget.
The rule is proposed as a rider to the transportation department’s budget. A rider is a legislative directive that makes clear what legislators’ intent for certain funds are.
An issue docket shows what legislators are proposing in their compromise budget, which has yet to be approved by either chamber.
If it is approved, the rule would put an obstacle in the way of a bridge plan that local leaders have focused on for the past eight months.
In September, citing a shortfall in funding commitments to build a $91 million, 75-foot tall bridge to the west of the existing bridge, Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough announced the city would instead come up with its own plans for a locally funded bridge. That could have put the construction of any new bridge off for years.
In March, the plan changed again, when the county announced it had secured $18 million from the Houston-Galveston Area Council. With that money, the county said it would be possible to build a new, $77 million bridge in the same place the existing bridge is.
More importantly, the cheaper bridge could be built without a financial commitment from Texas A&M University, which has pushed for a new bridge to be built in a way that circumvents the Pelican Island campus.
The county’s plan for a bridge is contingent on bridge repairs funds from the transportation department. The department has held aside some $45 million for a new bridge since 2017.
The current two-lane draw bridge was built in 1957. The bridge is considered to be obsolete, and officials estimate it could stand for another 20 years before it’s no longer safe.
The transportation department has said a local government needs to officially partner with the state in order for the project to move forward.
The county’s latest proposal would make it the local partner. Now, the new proposal seems to stand in the way of that plan.
Local officials said Tuesday they had not been aware of the rider until it was published in the issue docket. The county and the city’s top elected officials said they were dismayed that the university had requested the rider without talking to the local governments first.
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said the budget rider made him feel as though he had wasted six years working on plans to develop the new bridge. The county has been talking in earnest about the project since 2013.
“They say they’re not in the business of building roads, but they sure seem to be in the business of dictating how roads get built,” Henry said. “They want to talk about their economic impact on the county, their economic impact to us is zero.
“They’re off the tax rolls, they don’t put a dollar into the county coffers. They’re asking county taxpayers to pay for a road because it’s more convenient for them.”
University officials say they aren’t able to contribute money meant for educational purposes for an off-campus road project.
Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough said that may be true, but he believed the university could have used its institutional power to push more funding toward its preferred bridge.
“In my mind, I have never expected A&M to write a check,” Yarbrough said. “In my mind, when we talk about A&M being a partner in the deal, it’s to use their political influence, which they obviously used to get to this state.”
County officials said they hoped there would be time for local legislators to remove the rider from the budget bill before it reaches the chambers for a vote.
State Sen. Larry Taylor, whose district includes Galveston, is a member of the conference committee. His office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
State Rep. Mayes Middleton, Galveston’s representative in the House of Representatives, said he opposed the rider and called it an impediment to a new bridge being built.
“Building a new bridge as soon as possible is vital to our local economy, port and development of Pelican Island,” Middleton said.
The state’s Legislative Budget Board is chaired by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen.
The rider also comes as the city and county were set to formalize their agreement to partner on the bridge. The Galveston City Council is scheduled to vote on a memorandum of understanding regarding the bridge during a special meeting Wednesday. The county has a vote planned on a similar memorandum Monday.
Officials say they anticipated that those votes would still go forward, even if it’s not clear what options for a bridge are left.