Feature Photo (above): Helicopter view of the southwest corner of Pelican Island where it is connected to Galveston by the two-lane causeway. The buildings in the foreground belong to Southwest Shipyards and the Texas A&M University-Galveston campus sits between the shipyards and the causeway. Image: Google Streets.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Galveston (Galveston County) — Plans to replace the bridge connecting Galveston to Pelican Island are in a holding pattern while local officials await word on whether the Legislature will close a funding gap.
During a March 11 workshop session of the Galveston County Commissioners Court, the commissioners discussed with staff and Col. Michael Fossum, chief operating officer of Texas A&M University at Galveston, the status of a project that is considered a strategic infrastructure need for opening Pelican Island to industrial development.
There are several route options under consideration for a new bridge, but the most affordable option would cut across a corner of the university’s campus on Pelican Island and has been opposed by Fossum. A route that avoids the campus would cost $105 million or about $16 million more than the low budget route and the university is lobbying the Legislature to close a funding gap.
The bridge currently in use is a two-lane highway that has a drawbridge. This interrupts vehicle traffic when vessels are passing through the channel.
Pelican Island as seen from the Pelican Island Causeway approach at the drawbridge juncture. Image: Google Streets.
Pelican Island is across the Galveston Channel from the City of Galveston and is considered an ideal site for deepwater port activities. A majority of the south portion of the island has been developed, being home to several shipping-related enterprises, such as Southwest Shipyard, Gulf Copper Dry Dock & Rig Repair, and Martin Midstream. Most of the island, however, remains vacant.
In 2011, AECOM prepared the Pelican Island Container Terminal Conceptual Planning Study for the Port of Galveston Board of Trustees. The study provided estimates for the scale, cost and location of the possible sites, with costs varying between $1.57 billion to $1.63 billion. The Port of Houston Authority owns 1,100 acres, roughly a quarter of the entire island, but has never managed to bring any development to its property.
The Northeast site option in the AECOM Container Terminal study. Courtesy: Port of Gavleston.
The replacement bridge will have four lanes, a span 75-foot-wide and pedestrian/bicycle paths. It would be able to handle the volume of heavy tractor-trailer traffic that would come if a major container port were to be developed on the island.
County Judge Mark Henry referred to an updated estimate prepared by Kenny Ozuna, Texas Gulf Coast bridge section manager at HDR. Financial contributors were broken out as follows:
- $45 million from the Texas Department of Transportation.
- $10 million from Galveston County Navigation District No. 1, a district whose sole purpose is to maintain and operate the bridge.
- $5 million from Galveston County.
- $5 million from the City of Galveston.
- $21 million from the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC).
It was noted that the HGAC commitment was an increase of $3 million over a previous pledge, but the $21 million level is now contingent on going with the route preferred by Texas A&M. Also, the Navigation District pledge is “up to $10 million” with the amount solely dedicated to demolition of the existing right of way.
“If it costs $8 million,” to remove the existing bridge, Henry noted, that’s all they will pay. Even at $10 million, the total available is $86 million. Ozuna estimated a gap of more than $20 million.
Fossum said he had spent the previous week in Austin lobbying legislators, focusing on members of education and transportation committees, and is asking for $24 million.
“I framed it as a collision between transportation and education,” Fossum said.
There are currently about 2,500 students enrolled at the Galveston campus. The school specializes in marine and maritime studies in science, engineering and business, and in research and public service related to marine resources. The Legislature has invested heavily in the Galveston campus and as it has grown, Fossum said, it has become increasingly vital to the economic vitality of the county.
“I do believe we have support from the Legislature. They want to protect their investment in higher education. I phrased it as this is kind of an economic stimulus package for Galveston. They need some help with infrastructure that will both protect the investment and future contributions from our university, as well as opening up Pelican Island to more significant development,” Fossum said.
Atlantic Hall, one of the many new education buildings on the Texas A&M University-Galveston campus on Pelican Island. Image: Google Streets.
Commissioners Court and City Council are in talks over the drafting of a memorandum of understanding that would establish their roles as the project moves forward. The tentative plan awaiting approval would make the county the project sponsor during the construction phase. The city would take over responsibility once a new bridge is completed.
The projected timeline envisioned in the memorandum has construction beginning in 2021, with construction reaching completion by 2024. But the route chosen hinges on the Legislature’s decision.
“So, we’re in a bit of a hold until we see what Austin can do for us,” Henry said.
Once the existing bridge is demolished, the Navigation District would cease to exist.