The Pelican Island Bridge project is looking more and more like a bridge to nowhere fast.
In what many in Galveston County are considering a surprise legislative end run, Texas A&M University at Galveston officials successfully managed to insert a rule in a state funding bill that puts the project’s future in great question.
Many in the Galveston County community are miffed, to say the least.
Speaking at a workshop meeting, County Judge Mark Henry vented his frustrations at the university, which lobbied for a change in the state’s proposed budget that blocks the bridge from moving forward without explicit permission from the state’s Legislative Budget Board.
There’s a slight possibility that county and city of Galveston officials might get that permission over the university’s objection, but most see the budget rider as a poison pill meant to kill a plan to replace the bridge with one A&M officials oppose.
Henry bluntly expressed his feelings about the status of the bridge and its future.
“I don’t intend to drive over it anymore,” Henry said of the bridge. “When it comes down, that’s somebody else’s problem.”
The key partners on the project, which included the county, the city of Galveston, the Port of Galveston, Navigation District No. 1, the Texas Department of Transportation and the university, had worked for years to develop plans and identify funding.
Initially, everyone had agreed the ideal option would be for the new bridge to route traffic around, rather than through, the university’s Pelican Island campus.
When the available money was totaled up, however, it became clear the ideal option would cost more than local leaders could assemble.
While the cost of replacing the old bridge has been something of a moving target, the difference between the ideal bridge and the achievable bridge is about $14 million — the ideal option costing about $91 million and the one the city and county opted for about $77 million.
Interestingly, the only party not contributing directly into the pot was the university itself.
So, as the contributing parties decided to scale back and use the funds available, the option of rerouting the road around the campus came off the table. Simply not enough money was in the pot.
Unhappy with the change, the university elected to use a legislative play to accomplish its unfunded demand on the project.
The rift among the bridge partners is pretty wide now.
Henry this week suggested the transportation department should take the $45 million reserved for the bridge project and use it elsewhere.
Others are a little less hot about the university’s maneuver, but nobody’s happy and everybody’s wondering whether there’s a way around the impasse.
For Galveston County, this is potentially a tragedy. Pelican Island remains one of the most desirable and sought-after undeveloped pieces of waterfront land. The potential for the development of maritime and industrial projects — and the accompanying tax revenue — is significant.
The plan to replace the Pelican Island Bridge, like the old bridge itself, is falling apart.
The bridge deal falling apart might have an unintended consequence — a bruised reputation for the university.
Memories are long in Galveston County and the day might come when the university needs the support of those old partners that got burned on the bridge deal.
We wish the university had chosen to use its remarkable legislative influence to help move the community forward and gain additional funding.
After all, true partnerships are formed by everyone bringing something valuable to the table.
We wonder whether down the road the few million needed to reroute the road would have proven less costly than the tarnishing of the university’s reputation in future endeavors.
• Leonard Woolsey