Mundy says talk of a land swap caused "alarm" bells to go off.
Mundy says talk of a land swap caused "alarm" bells to go off.
Scott Nowell

Taking a Toll

Each April, more than 10,000 bird-watchers from all over the world visit the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary near Galveston. They come to witness the spectacle of thousands of birds migrating north for the summer from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The loamy silt of the Bolivar Mud Flats contains a rich buffet of organic life for starving birds that literally drop to the ground at the first sight of land, exhausted from the nonstop days-long flight across the Gulf of Mexico.

Jeffery Mundy is president of the Houston Audubon Society, which owns and maintains the 1,100-acre sanctuary for public use. He's got his stock message for Houstonians interested in nature: "Instead of watching nature shows on Channel 8 (PBS), get in your car and drive an hour down to the peninsula. You can see bobcats, coyotes, alligators, bald eagles -- it's still a wild place."

But it may not be wild for much longer. The influential Harris County Toll Road Authority has proposed building a five-mile bridge that would replace the free public ferries that the state has operated for more than 50 years. The estimated $230 million HCTRA project could make the secluded peninsula a developer's paradise, likely wiping out one of the more unique wildlife habitats in the nation.

A Bolivar bridge spanning the entrance to the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay has been envisioned for decades, but the cost of building one at an elevation of 238 feet -- high enough to accommodate the world's tallest vessels -- has kept travelers reliant on ferries. During summer weekends and holidays, there is often a two-hour wait for the 20-minute voyage.

Many Galveston officials view a bridge project as a much-needed step toward the area's industrial development. County commissioners invited HCTRA to make a proposal, saying no other funding was available.

HCTRA Director Mike Strech says the toll bridge could be economically viable because the Port of Houston plans to build a massive container port on Pelican Island. Much of the land in that largely undeveloped area just north of Galveston Island is owned by the Houston port, and Pelican Island would serve as the anchor for the proposed toll bridge. Asked about the plans, Port of Houston spokeswoman Felicia Griffin says the port is now focused on the controversial expansion at Bayport. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to issue an opinion in the spring on whether it can be built.

Strech says a toll bridge would be economically viable only if traffic at least doubles from the current 6,000 vehicles using the ferries daily. A container port and bridge would enable a major trucking route to be established from Galveston to points east. It would run along Highway 87, a two-lane road that bisects the mile-wide, 20-mile-long Bolivar Peninsula. Strech says that would reduce traffic on I-10 and improve Houston's air quality.

Environmental attorney Jim Blackburn scoffs at that notion. "For them to make an air quality argument -- that's the stuff that just drives me crazy." Blackburn argues that the real goal is development, not mobility, and that the project would ultimately increase air pollution in Houston.

"What in the world is the Harris County Toll Road Authority doing down in Galveston County?" Blackburn asks. "Once they get that toll bridge in, they will argue that they need a second causeway linking Pelican Island to the mainland."

Blackburn and Mundy believe Highway 87 would have to be widened to accommodate the 18-wheeler traffic a bridge would bring.

Without that and a second causeway, says Blackburn, "This is a bridge to nowhere. But it's a great engineering project -- especially if it generates another bridge. That's the way a certain group of folks in this community think."

Local residents, especially the 3,000 or so living on Bolivar, challenge the plans on a variety of fronts. They believe increased traffic and development would radically diminish their quality of life and destroy the very quaintness that tourists find charming, including the ferry boats. A 1999 survey showed residents barely favoring a free bridge, much less one that is expected to charge a $2 toll. The Houston Audubon Society fears the effect of development on its most important property, which begins right where a bridge would. According to Mundy, the Bolivar refuge is among the top ten bird sanctuaries in the United States.

"The thing that has protected that area is that it takes time to cross over," Mundy says. "If you put the bridge over, that thing is gone. You can kiss it good-bye."

Much of the property the state might acquire through imminent domain for widening Highway 87 is now part of the bird sanctuary. Mundy says it's not so much the land loss they fear but the development of the peninsula that will likely follow.

The Audubon group is the largest landowner on the western half of the Bolivar Peninsula. It will soon acquire another 650 acres and plans to buy more. Mundy says it has been relatively easy to raise money for land purchases because naturalists internationally recognize that Bolivar is an essential pit stop for migrating birds.

Mundy says that a few months ago his organization was approached informally about swapping some of its Bolivar holdings for marshland on the eastern tip of Galveston Island, should a bridge deal gain approval. The significance of that offer didn't register then, he says. "When we heard about the attorney general request, that's when the alarm went off."

The Harris County Toll Road Authority asked the Texas Attorney General's Office for what Strech calls a codification clarification of the Texas Transportation Code. It would determine if HCTRA can undertake a project that is entirely outside of Harris County and that doesn't directly link to any road within Harris County. Strech believes the authority can do such a project if it is invited in by the host county and the state transportation agency.

"We think it's a minor deal," says Strech, but if the attorney general doesn't agree, HCTRA "may have to go to the legislature" to amend the transportation code.

Mundy says if that happens, the Houston Audubon Society may take drastic action. "This is serious. It's the kind of deal where you link arms and stand in front of the bulldozers."


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