Bridging the Gap
The Houston Audubon Society has been one of several groups seeking to block the massive Bayport project in a lengthy and bitter lawsuit involving the Port of Houston Authority. That's why Audubon executive director Joy Hester was more than a little curious when she heard in September that port chairman Jim Edmonds wanted to talk.
Hester's organization believes the Bayport facility would be disastrous for the environment in and around Galveston Bay. However, Edmonds wanted to discuss another looming problem for the Audubon Society, one involving its nationally known Bolivar Mud Flats Shorebird Sanctuary.
Birders believe a proposed bridge linking Galveston's Pelican Island with the Bolivar peninsula could devastate the sanctuary (see "Taking a Toll," December 12). And Edmonds surprised Hester when he suggested they join forces against the bridge. Edmonds says the 238-foot vertical clearance over the Houston Ship Channel may not be high enough for cruise ships from the port's planned cruise terminal at Bayport -- the same project being opposed by the Audubon Society.
"I never thought we'd be on the same side," Hester says.
However, the birders have formed an unlikely alliance with the port against the bridge. This new effort, combined last month with Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia's opposition to the project, has likely left the Bolivar bridge dead in the water.
Last summer, it looked like a done deal -- and business as usual for the Harris County Toll Road Authority. HCTRA has earned its reputation for building big, on time and under budget. And what was proposed as perhaps HCTRA's most ambitious engineering project -- the five-mile, four-lane toll bridge over the entrance to Galveston Bay -- seemed to signal the realization of what many transportation officials here have long advocated: a regional toll road system.
The Texas Department of Transportation is all for the bridge. TxDOT spends more than $20 million annually operating the ferry boats that are now the only direct link between Galveston and Bolivar. And each dollar spent building toll roads essentially frees up another dollar for the state to build highways elsewhere.
Galveston County commissioners want the bridge, as long as it doesn't cost them any money. After a 1999 TxDOT study indicated a bridge was the cheapest way to get traffic from Galveston to Bolivar, the county unanimously invited HCTRA to move ahead on the project.
Ferry boats make the trip between Pelican and Bolivar in about 20 minutes, although the wait to reach the ferries can range up to hours in peak periods, such as summer weekends and holidays.
The project has been on the drawing board for more than two years. Until September, the only organized opposition was from the Houston Audubon Society.
But there had been one snag. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled in April that the Texas Transportation Code prohibited HCTRA from projects that didn't at least link to a road in Harris County. However, Abbott's findings became worthless -- virtually overnight -- when HCTRA's creator, state Senator Jon Lindsay, got the law changed. Lindsay, the former Harris County judge who chairs the Senate's transportation committee, authored and championed Senate Bill 716. It enables HCTRA to build in any county surrounding Harris.
The Audubon Society hired a lobbyist to fight that bill. The only concession the group obtained was a rider to the legislation providing that .2 percent of toll revenues ($2 for every $1,000 in tolls) be dedicated to enhancing and preserving tidelands, marshlands and fisheries in Galveston County. By then, the birders had resigned themselves to yet another court battle over environmental issues, a fight they would likely lose. "We were feeling like it was a big train coming down the track and we weren't going to be able to stop it," Hester says.
Then came the call from Edmonds. Hester was excited to learn that the powerful port was now on the Audubon's side. She met with the port's leaders at their posh waterfront conference room but wasn't sure how she'd be welcomed, in light of her group's legal action against Bayport.
Hester's first question for Edmonds: "You do know we're in a lawsuit?"
"He said he knew," says Hester, "but that didn't mean we couldn't agree on this one."
In June, the Audubon Society joined several groups suing the Army Corps of Engineers in an attempt to stop the development of the huge Bayport container port and cruise terminal (see "Mixed Messages," July 3). But the suit is really about the port, and it is the port's lawyers who will defend the corps's favorable environmental impact statement on the Bayport facility.
Harris County Commissioner Garcia also opposes Bayport, but the project was approved long before she assumed office early this year. In November, after looking at the bridge's $230 million price tag, studying traffic projections and talking to the port and the Audubon Society, Garcia tabled HCTRA's proposal, effectively killing it.
The Port of Houston lies in her Precinct 2, and long-standing protocol at Commissioners Court dictates that, without Garcia's approval, it's highly unlikely the bridge will ever come up for a vote. "She's got it stopped for now," Hester says.
Edmonds says of the project's support: "I'm told that the state and contractors drive it."
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 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."