We should all wish the Texas Department of Transportation good luck in its efforts to solve the medical pass fakery problem at the Galveston-Port Bolivar ferry landings. We should all take a moment to enjoy the fact that it’s the department, and not us, that must attempt that feat.
It’s a classic dilemma, and a textbook no-win situation, for the department, which manages the free ferries that travel all day every day between Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula.
At issue is a practice of issuing priority boarding passes to people with some medical need certified by a note from a physician, which everybody knows is widely, perhaps mostly, abused by people with no legitimate medical need.
It’s reasonable to grant people with real, urgent medical appointments passes to jump the ferry lines, which are notoriously long at times — two hours or more on summer weekends. People needing dialysis, for example. The definition of medical need should be pretty narrow and the eligible population pretty small, though. That’s not the case in this case, even though not just anything broadly medical should qualify a person for a medical boarding pass. A person with an appointment with a dermatologist about a rash around his ankles has no more urgent business than a person with a court date or a job.
That’s not really a problem, though, because the medical boarding pass program has become a residential priority boarding pass program. Probably well more than half the passes being used at any given time are being used for reasons that have nothing to do with access to health care.
The evidence is in the number of passes the state has issued, about 5,500, which is more than twice the permanent population of Bolivar Peninsula, which is about 2,200, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There also has been talk of a gray-market trade of the passes, which it not beyond belief.
What people living on the peninsula always have wanted, often demanded, and have achieved in practice, is priority boarding passes based on residency. If you live on the peninsula, the argument goes, you should have a pass to jump the lines of mere tourists fouling up the ferry landings.
It’s an understandable thing to want, but a problem for the transportation department because the ferry system doesn’t belong to the residents of Bolivar Peninsula. It belongs to the residents of Texas, and, given the vast amounts of federal money that have flowed into the state’s transportation system over the years, the U.S. citizens, who pay to keep it running.
Ferry pass fakery might be mostly a matter of principle, but principle matters in the application of government policy. The government shouldn’t knowingly operate sham programs that create special rights for people based on proximity or insider status. Doing so undermines the rule of law, which undermines everything else.
Meanwhile, arguments that Bolivar Peninsula residents deserve this perk would be much more compelling had they not rejected a reasonable solution to the inconvenience they experience at the ferry landings. The transportation department offered to sell priority boarding passes for $250 a year, which is about $20 a month, $5 a week, 68 cents a day, far less than commuters all over Texas typically pay to use toll roads.
Only 180 people showed any interest in paying that modest fee. In Port Arthur, on the other hand, the 500 people needed to get the program going signed up. It’s not that peninsula residents want a workable solution, they want a no-cost solution.
Transportation department officials told The Daily News last week they were discussing ways to reform the ferry pass program, but wouldn’t reveal any details.
Whatever the state attempts to do to reform the minor-league corruption in the medical pass system will lead to insurrection among the famously cantankerous peninsula residents.
In fact, the easiest fix might very well be to have state Rep. Mayes Middleton arrange for Louisiana to annex everything Gulfward of Interstate 10 between Port Bolivar and Orange.
• Michael A. Smith