No disrespect to the USS Texas, but plans to spend $35 million to repair the old battleship are a little incongruous assessed in full context.
That’s not to say the state of Texas shouldn’t spend the money. The battleship, which has been berthed for years just north up the Houston Ship Channel next to the San Jacinto Monument, is important to state and national history. Texas ought to preserve the Battleship Texas.
The incongruous part starts with where the $35 million is coming from and how easily it was shaken loose.
The $35 million for repairs, and another $500,000 for a “curatorial study of related artifacts,” will come from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, commonly called the Rainy Day Fund. Although lawmakers went on a spending spree with that money during the recently ended 86th legislative session, the $11 billion pot filled by taxes on oil and gas production traditionally had been more fiercely guarded than the gates of hell.
The full context part, along with some irony, lies in the sorry fate of a project to replace the Pelican Island Bridge.
The future of that project, which might accomplish much more than simply stabilize the economy of this region, is in serious doubt over about $14 million. That $14 million is the difference in cost between the bridge local governments have the money to build and the bridge Texas A&M University at Galveston wants to be built.
Galveston County, the city of Galveston and some others have enough, including $45 million from the Texas Department of Transportation, to build a new bridge along the same alignment as the old one, which would continue sending industrial traffic through the middle of the university’s Pelican Island campus.
University officials are adamant they want a bridge alignment routing that traffic around the campus, which is reasonable, except there’s apparently not enough money in sight to build that bridge.
Those university officials say they asked lawmakers for some money to solve the problem but were unsuccessful. So instead, they had a rule passed requiring Legislative Budget Board approval for any bridge to be built from Galveston to Pelican Island. Depending on who you ask, that either killed or just seriously complicated the whole plan to replace the obsolete bridge.
It’s reasonable to ask why lawmakers would be willing to kick in $35 million to restore a tourist attraction that’s already backed by a nonprofit foundation that can raise private money, but not $14 million for a bridge that might have profound economic benefit for this entire region.
It’s more interesting than relevant, perhaps, but the Texas Legislature created the Economic Stabilization Fund in the late 1980s as a buffer against the booms and busts traditional, inevitable, in the state’s petroleum-based economy. The oil and gas industry was in a pit at the time, and some people, with sound reasoning and good evidence, were writing its obituary.
Everybody predicted a future of continued decline for that backbone industry; nobody expected the Economic Stabilization Fund to bank money in the double-digit billions.
Far from dying, however, the state’s oil and gas industry has gone through a renaissance unimaginable in the late 1980s thanks a controversial production technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Not only is fracking responsible for saving the Texas oil and gas industry, it has pretty much ended the nation’s dependence on imported petroleum. The United States is on track to become a net petroleum exporter by 2020, according to the International Energy Agency.
Imagine predicting that in 1989.
George P. Mitchell didn’t invent fracking, but he spent a fortune and suffered much doubt and derision perfecting it. Probably no one person is more responsible for Texas having a Rainy Day fund of $11 billion.
Meanwhile, the Aggie campus out on Pelican Island wouldn’t exist without Mitchell’s donated land and money.
So by all means, Texas should put $35 million into repairing the USS Texas. We should honor its contribution to history. But how about $14 million from that Rainy Day Fund for a bridge to Pelican Island honoring the contributions of George P. Mitchell, and benefiting the economy?
• Michael A. Smith