Top officials at Texas A&M University at Galveston have met with the Texas Department of Transportation to make clear their concerns about trucks carrying volatile and hazardous chemicals through their campus on Pelican Island.
The conversations are part of an effort by school, state and local officials to resurrect plans for a new bridge to Pelican Island, which university officials two months ago blocked by lobbying state budget writers.
The university doesn’t oppose a bridge, Col. Mike Fossum, chief operating offer at the Pelican Island campus, said. But university officials do have concerns about industrial traffic driving through the growing campus and the potential for a new bridge to bring more, he said.
“We would love to help grow the industry and the tax base on Pelican Island, but my first responsibility is for the safety of my students,” Fossum said.
The school has identified 20 industrial businesses that carry potentially dangerous chemicals along the Seawolf Parkway, Fossum said. So far, the university has only been able to identify only some of the materials that regularly pass through the campus, he said.
“We’ve tried to research what hazardous materials are used by them and are traveling on the roads, public information is only available on three of those 20,” he said. “We’ve got a scary list and this is toxic material.”
The list includes barium sulphate, calcium bromide concentrate and other chemicals that are used in oil well drilling fluid and petroleum products like fuel oil cutter stock and carbon black oil.
The Seawolf Parkway, which runs the length of Pelican Island, is a registered hazardous material route, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Forty percent of the traffic that moves through the campus is heavy industrial traffic, Fossum said, citing traffic studies the university conducted.
If one of those trucks spilled its cargo, or crashed, it could endanger students living in dormitories or people working in academic and administrative buildings, Fossum said.
One of the school’s dorms is within 60 feet of the parkway, he said.
Fossum met recently with Texas Department of Transportation district engineer Quincy Allen and commissioner Laura Ryan to detail his concerns, he said.
The meeting led to a “clear understanding” of the hazards the campus faces, he said.
The issue of industrial traffic moving through the campus is tied to the university’s objections to some plans for a new bridge to Pelican Island.
In May, after city and county leaders had settled on a plan to jointly construct a $77 million bridge across the Galveston ship channel, A&M University officials lobbied the legislature to block its construction.
The agreed-upon bridge would have followed the alignment of the current bridge, which leads traffic through the Pelican Island campus.
That plan was blocked by a budget rider that requires Legislative Budget Board approval of any bridge to Pelican Island. While it doesn’t expressly stop the construction of a new bridge, officials on all sides agreed the rider blocked the bridge plan unless university officials relented.
Texas A&M officials have for years said they supported building a new bridge to Pelican Island, but one aligned that would route traffic, and hazardous materials, along a new road north of the campus.
A bridge such as university officials want would cost about $91 million at last count, about $14 million more than the city and county leaders could secure, officials have said.
City and county officials have said they were frustrated that the university hadn’t agreed to fund or help find the funding for that version of the bridge, and cited the money gap among the reasons for moving ahead with the cheaper bridge.
University officials had tried in numerous ways to secure the additional money, but had been blocked by spending rules and legislative appropriation protocols, Fossum said. They moved to block the cheaper bridge only as a last resort and believing there might still be a way to pay for the better bridge, he said.
The project is in limbo as officials on all sides try to find a plan that can pass muster.
The Texas Department of Transportation hasn’t made any commitments toward funding the project, a spokesman said Tuesday.
Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, who also took part in the meeting with the transportation department and the university, said he now understands that hazardous materials and industrial traffic are what’s at the center of the university’s concerns.
“Basically, the discussion is how do we advance the ball,” Clark said. “Several ideas were shared and we’re going to see if we can come up with some sort of resolution to get the project moving.”