Bridging the Gap

Birders and the port are new buds seeking to block the proposed toll span at Bolivar

TxDOT would like to get out of the ferry business, and there is no shortage of builders in Houston eager to lay steel and pour concrete on what might be the world's tallest crossing. Several county sources told the Houston Press that they believe the toll bridge is a boondoggle being pushed hard by area contractors. Even HCTRA's director, Mike Strech, says traffic would need to at least double for the toll bridge to pay for itself.

One sure way to kill it is to insist on a higher bridge. HCTRA spokesperson Patricia Friese says, "When you talk about raising the bridge another foot, the costs go up exponentially." A bridge at 250 feet might cost twice as much as the one currently planned for 238 feet.

Edmonds says a bridge could block future cruise ships, the tallest vessels in the world, from entering the Bayport facility in the decades ahead. "Ask a ship architect what will be the height of vessels in 20 years and he'll tell you, 'I don't know,' " Edmonds explains.

The Bolivar landing: TxDOT would like to replace the 
expensive ferries.
The Bolivar landing: TxDOT would like to replace the expensive ferries.
Ferry trips take 20 minutes, but peak-period waits can 
last hours.
Ferry trips take 20 minutes, but peak-period waits can last hours.

The height of the proposed bridge would give any current vessel more than ten feet of clearance. But Edmonds says even 250 feet wouldn't be tall enough. He wouldn't say at what height the port might withdraw its opposition, but according to Senator Lindsay, "Edmonds said they wanted it higher than any bridge in the world."

When it comes to access to major ports, the proposed bridge would seem to be more than adequate. The Golden Gate Bridge rises 220 feet above San Francisco Bay. New York's Verrazano Narrows Bridge is 229 feet tall. Every ship can pass under them.

Steve Coleman, spokesperson for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, says it's "very unlikely" that anyone would build a ship too tall to get into New York. He says of the Houston port's opposition to a bridge less than 250 feet high, "I can't believe that's an issue."

One issue might be Pelican Island, where the western end of the Bolivar bridge would be anchored. The Port of Houston Authority owns about half of it. Edmonds says the bridge project, which includes a proposed road through the island, "would split the property we own right down the middle."

State Representative Craig Eiland of Galveston, who got the Audubon Society's rider tacked onto Lindsay's bill, says potential competition could be part of the Houston port's opposition to the bridge. Shippers would have quick access to the Port of Galveston and ready transportation from truck routes. The Galveston port is already a major competitor for cruise line business.

Galveston port officials did not return calls from the Press.

Friese, of the toll road authority, says she can't understand what issues could be of concern to the Houston port. "What we are proposing is something that was more than adequate to allow for the biggest vessels and even taller." She points out that much shorter bridges already span the ship channel.

But those bridges are further up the ship channel and don't have the potential to block cruise ship access to Bayport. Hester says port officials told her that "no matter how high they built it, there would be ship technology in the future that would make them uncompetitive."

The Audubon Society believes any bridge at any height will bring massive development to the isolated, 20-mile-long Bolivar peninsula, destroying the bird sanctuary. It's rated by birders as one of the ten most important in the nation. The stakes were raised in August with the purchase of an additional 650 acres, for a total of 1,750 acres, making the Audubon Society by far the peninsula's largest landowner.

A bridge would literally link property owned by the Houston port on Pelican Island with that owned by the Audubon Society at Bolivar. The connection is not lost on Hester. Nor is the fact that the Bayport project her group is suing to stop may turn out to be the very thing that saves the Audubon Society's bird sanctuary in Bolivar.

"It's an unusual situation," says Hester of her new friends at the Port of Houston. "We all agreed that we disagreed on other things, but this is one thing we can agree on."

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