Bridge damaged by Hurricane Ike could be historic

June 4, 2013 10:18:50 AM PDT
Discussions about replacing the aging Pelican Island Bridge took a surprising turn earlier when state officials informed city leaders the structure was historically significant and subject to protections. "It was quite a bombshell," Mayor Lewis Rosen said. "You could have heard a pin drop."

Rosen with other city and economic development officials and representatives of the Houston-Galveston Area Council met May 17 in Austin with the Texas Department of Transportation to discuss building a $30 million bridge to replace the old one, which is in need of repair and is hindering economic growth on the island, industry officials said.

The Galveston County Daily News ( ) reports the Pelican Island Bridge, which carries 51st Street over the Galveston Ship Channel to Pelican Island, was completed in 1959 for Galveston County Navigation District No. 1.

It's historically significant because it's a bascule type drawbridge, which uses a beam or truss deck that can be raised to an incline or vertical position, allowing vessels to pass. Bascule bridges can be single-leaf, lifting from one side, or double-leaf, in which the bridge separates at the center.

The Pelican Island Bridge is a single-leaf bascule.

The bridge is important because it represents an important innovation that provided reliable, unimpeded vehicular transportation, while allowing ships unobstructed access to Texas ports, state officials said.

Its 3,239-foot lift span also is exceptionally long compared to other movable bridges, which demonstrates important engineering design and technology, according to documents provided by the Texas Historical Commission.

And it's a rare bridge.

Bascule bridges were introduced in the 1890s, but very few were built from 1945 to 1965. The Pelican Island Bridge is the only surviving bascule bridge in Texas from that period and one of only two known to have been built in Texas during the period, officials said.

The bridge has been deemed eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. And while that doesn't preclude its demolition or removal, it makes such prospects far more difficult and expensive.

Should there be a movement to demolish the bridge, officials would have to rigorously study alternatives, including rehabilitating it or building another bridge parallel to it. If those options weren't viable, the bridge could be demolished but not without gathering extensive documentation and erecting a marker noting its significance, state officials said.

Before the bridge could be demolished, historians would have to provide high quality archival photos, images and articles, said Linda Henderson, a historian with the Texas Historical Commission.

"It's a special bridge, but we understand the limitations," Henderson said. "If a bridge is unsafe, there's not many arguments we could use not to replace it."

The transportation department also said that no one expects a bridge, no matter how historical, to stay in use if it's no longer safe or working.

" Safety is our highest priority," transportation department spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said. "We would not allow for the transport of people or goods on a bridge deemed unsafe."

What makes the bridge so special also makes it a problem, its caretakers and industry observers said.

The bridge's lift span will be closed for more than a year beginning Aug. 14 for a $10 million project to repair Hurricane Ike damage. The storm, which struck in September 2008, caused significant damage to the bridge's lift gears and other machinery.

Transportation department officials ordered the repairs after finding components of the lift bridge to be unsafe.

Thousands of shipyard and offshore workers, along with students, staff and faculty at Texas A&M University at Galveston use the bridge daily. Vehicular traffic will not be interrupted during the repairs, although the bridge may be reduced to one traffic lane.

But closing the lift span will force barges and other vessels from businesses on the ship channel west of the bridge to traverse the north side of Pelican Island, costing money, time to open water and competitive advantages, industry officials have said.

It would force vessels to go almost to the Galveston Causeway and make a 140-degree turn, which is nearly impossible for some.

Because of its age, the bridge is in need of constant patching up, which is costly, industry stakeholders argue.

They would rather see efforts, energy and money going into a new bridge that would meet modern maritime needs, they said.

The Harborside Management District, the Port of Galveston, the city and the Galveston Economic Development Partnership are just some of the stakeholders working toward building a new bridge. The meeting with transportation department officials last month was a part of that effort.

Early discussions have centered on a bridge that would arc 75 feet in height, providing enough room for barges and other vessel traffic without a lift span. There's also discussion among port officials, industry and local government officials about building a railroad bridge alongside the proposed new bridge.

The old bridge's historic significance doesn't mean the end for a new bridge, said Jeff Sjostrom, president of the Galveston Economic Development Partnership.

Industry and city officials are continuing to meet with transportation department officials about options and paying for a new bridge, Sjostrom said. And almost everyone agrees a new bridge and a rail link to Pelican Island are necessary for the city's economic growth.

But dealing with preservation of the old bridge adds new dimensions to the issue, Sjostrom said.

"I don't think anyone envisioned we were dealing with a historic bridge," Sjostrom said.

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