The Galveston Economic Development Partnership was right to form a task force to study the feasibility of what advocates are calling a “land bridge” to Pelican Island.
The idea of a land bridge presents some problems and it surfaced relatively late in a process that already was behind and needed to pick up speed. One state-imposed deadline already had been missed and a second looms in June. Missing that one could cost the effort more than $40 million in federal funding.
The idea also raises many questions about costs and the environmental consequences.
Despite all that, the proposal offers one thing that none of the other options offers — a railroad link to Pelican Island.
That alone is reason enough that others working on the project — primarily the Galveston County Commissioners Court — shouldn’t reject the idea out of hand.
In fact, the most urgent and important question among all the questions is whether we can afford to invest many millions of dollars in a project that doesn’t provide a railroad connection to Pelican Island.
What are the chances that an opportunity to add rail later will ever arise?
Todd Sullivan, who heads the partnership’s Maritime Task Force, has led calls for a land bridge to replace the obsolete drawbridge connecting Galveston to Pelican Island.
Building a land bridge would mean creating a strip of land, similar to a jetty, extending all the way across the west end of the Galveston Ship Channel to Pelican Island as a foundation for a road and a railway, Sullivan said.
That method would make a more or less level crossing that could accommodate rail cars, while the three other options being considered envision a sloping bridge that could only accommodate road vehicles.
Proponents argue that a rail connection would open Pelican Island to all sorts of industrial development and might even allow the Port of Galveston to move some of its cargo operations off the main island and allow more development of tourism and residential facilities along the waterfront.
They also argue that closing one end of the harbor would reduce the costs of dredging the harbor by as much as 90 percent. But plugging the west end of the Galveston Ship Channel with a levee would also have some downsides, others argue.
The biggest initial strike against the land bridge, however, is the cost, which has been estimated at $286 million, while costs of the fly-over bridges range from $63 million to $121 million.
That cost estimate is the first thing the task force should address because it’s unclear why, and hard to believe that, building bridges atop a jetty would be $165 million to $220 million more expensive than a fly-over bridge.
That number — $286 million — for an at-grade bridge seems especially high given that the Galveston Causeway cost only $135 million to build.
Galveston County officials, including County Judge Mark Henry, have said the land bridge proposal is too expensive and would take too long to get in order.
“I don’t know where the funding is going to come from unless someone gives us $210 million,” Henry told The Daily News. “Even then, I still don’t know that we can make that time frame.”
That opinion is understandable. Commissioners want to get a plan together and underway and they don’t want to risk missing a June deadline and losing $45 million in federal money the Texas Department of Transportation has pledged.
We have to agree with Jeff Sjostrom, president of the partnership, however, that the idea deserves some consideration and discussion.
“We’ve basically said, ‘let’s take the next 90 days and vet this and see what we come back with,’” Sjostrom said.
The onus is on the task force, however. It must get the main questions answered, especially the question about the cost, no later than March.
There’s just no more time.
• Michael A. Smith