There’s no question Texas A&M University has power in this state. What is questionable is how it used its power this week to block funding for a new Pelican Island bridge.
Local leaders are right to be dismayed and irritated by the maneuver, which took everyone by surprise and threw a much-needed development into question.
Texas A&M University at Galveston officials have made it clear they opposed construction of a bridge aligned to continue routing industrial traffic through their Pelican Island campus, citing safety as the issue. And they’ve made it clear they’re not in the business of building roads.
When this week they convinced lawmakers to insert a rule, through a rider in a state budget bill, that would block the Texas Department of Transportation from funding a new bridge to Pelican Island unless the department received explicit permission from the Legislative Budget Board, university officials were wielding power in the most blatant and unseemly way.
That maneuver has put into question the future of the bridge that all sides, including university officials, agree needs to be built.
University students, staff and faculty use the bridge to get to the island campus and waterfront stewards believe a new, better bridge is key to sustaining and developing commerce on Pelican Island.
The existing two-lane bridge was built in 1957 and is considered to be obsolete. Officials estimate it has another 20 years or so before it’s no longer safe.
The university executed this blocking maneuver after failing to secure increased funding for the university’s preferred alignment for the bridge around its campus.
If it’s approved, the rule would put an obstacle in the way of the bridge plan that local leaders have focused on for the past eight months.
In September, citing a lack of money to build a $91 million, 75-foot tall bridge to the west of the existing bridge, Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough announced the city would instead come up with its own plan for a locally funded bridge, which would have delayed construction for years.
In March, the plan changed again, when the county announced it had secured $18 million from the Houston-Galveston Area Council. With that money, the county could build a $77 million bridge in the same place as the existing bridge.
The cheaper bridge could be built without a financial commitment from Texas A&M University, but would retain the old alignment.
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, justifiably, said the budget rider made him feel as though he had wasted six years working on plans to develop the new bridge. The county has been talking in earnest about the project since 2013.
“They say they’re not in the business of building roads, but they sure seem to be in the business of dictating how roads get built,” Henry said. “They want to talk about their economic impact on the county, their economic impact is zero. They’re off the tax rolls, they don’t put a dollar into the county coffers. They’re asking county taxpayers to pay for a road because it’s more convenient for them.”
Yarbrough this week pointed out that while Texas A&M might not be able to directly help pay for the bridge, it could have used its political influence and institutional power to push more funding toward its preferred bridge.
University officials said they had no choice but to do what they did.
“We didn’t want to be here,” said Col. Mike Fossum, the chief operating officer of Texas A&M University of Galveston.
We shouldn’t be here.
Texas A&M University at Galveston should be working with local leaders, not against. Rather than scuttle the bridge, Texas A&M, which has proven with its latest move it can get the attention of lawmakers, should use its influence to ensure funding for a much-needed project that would benefit the Pelican Island campus and stakeholders in the county.
Texas A&M University officials should use their power for good and help make the Pelican Island bridge happen.
• Laura Elder