The question at hand for people interested in building a new bridge to Pelican Island is whether that can be done in a way that makes all the main users happy.
At stake now, as local leaders contemplate a cheaper alternative than the $91 million span they’d all been working toward, is Texas A&M University at Galveston’s continued support for the project.
University leaders want the new bridge to send industrial traffic around, rather than through, the campus.
It’s a reasonable request. Routing industrial traffic through the campus poses safety and general quality-of-life-problems for the university. Doing so also poses problems for the companies sending trucks on and off Pelican Island.
Accommodating that reasonable request had seemed like a given, because it should be a given. Apparently, however, it’s not.
The situation, as often happens, has gotten more complicated as the various parties involved got deeper into the details.
The main complication is that the state of Texas must identify a local sponsor for the project before it can release about $45 million in construction money.
That local sponsor would be responsible for about $50 million of the $91 million. The state approached the city of Galveston about signing on as the local sponsor, but the city has declined for two reasons — because it is forbidden by charter for taking on that much financial risk without approval though a citywide referendum, and general disinclination to take on that much financial risk even with voter approval.
The state is looking for more than a paper partner in the local sponsor. Although the assumption has been that others standing to benefit from the new bridge — the county, the university, the ports of Galveston and Houston and Navigation District No. 1 — would contribute money to the effort, the sponsor would be legally bound to come up with the $50 million and to cover any costs beyond the estimate. Side agreements with other stakeholders would be beside that point.
The bottom line is that the city of Galveston thinks it can’t afford to be on the hook for $50 million and it’s probably right about that.
County Commissioner Ken Clark, who has helped lead the county’s efforts to plan the bridge, said last week the Texas Department of Transportation had extended a deadline on allocating the $45 million to give the city council time put the bridge proposition on a May referendum ballot.
That seems very unlikely. The council would have to make that decision by Feb. 15 and it’s not even scheduled to meet until Feb. 28.
More importantly, already on that May ballot is a proposition allowing the city to continue charging, and to increase the fees for, parking along the seawall. The city has a lot riding on voter approval of those propositions.
It’s very unlikely the council members would risk putting a last-minute item committing taxpayers to $50 million or more on the same ballot, even if they thought signing on as the local sponsor was a good idea, which they clearly don’t.
As it stands now, the plan is to build a much cheaper bridge that continues to route heavy commercial traffic through the university campus.
Identifying a local sponsor for the state’s $45 million would get the initial plan back on track, but it’s not clear who that could be other than the city of Galveston.
Galveston County officials say they won’t be the local sponsor and that the county has committed all it can to a bridge that wasn’t its to worry about in the first place.
Galveston County Navigation District No. 1 is responsible for the old bridge and has a taxing authority, but has shown little desire to take a leading role in building a new bridge. It has committed $10 million to demolishing the old one.
Also, one of the benefits of the new bridge is that the navigation district, and the tax it collects on property owners east of 103rd street, would, should anyway, cease to be when the old bridge is gone.
That would be a good thing because it’s odd to tax such a small pool of property owners for money to maintain a regional asset like that bridge; and it’s odd to have a government entity with administrative overhead costs that’s responsible for only one bridge.
Another possible sponsor is the university, which stands to benefit the most directly from the new bridge and northern alignment and is backed, at least in theory, by the vast Texas A&M System.
The best of all solutions, however, and a course that all the stakeholders should explore, might be convincing the state of Texas to take ownership of the new bridge, be its own sponsor and collect the rest of the money from the other parties.
• Michael A. Smith