After nearly a decade of bickering and finger pointing, Texas scientists and lawmakers finally seem to agree that building some version of a “coastal spine” — a massive seawall and floodgate system — would best help protect the Houston region from a devastating hurricane.
But with a price tag sure to reach into the billions, the spine will almost certainly require a massive infusion of federal money, state officials agree. Whether Texas’ congressional delegation has the political backbone to deliver the cash remains to be seen.
While state officials say the project enjoys the full support of Texans in Congress, almost every member has been silent on the issue, including those who hold the most sway.
“Everything depends on how long it takes us to get Congress,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, a local economic development organization. “We could have a hurricane in three months.”
In March, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica published an extensive look at what Houston’s perfect storm would look like. Scientists, experts, and public officials say that such a hurricane would kill thousands and cripple the national economy.
Building some sort of coastal barrier system around Galveston and Houston would rank as one of the nation’s most ambitious public works projects and would be unlikely to succeed without champions in Washington. State leaders and Houston-area congressmen cited U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Kevin Brady of Houston as those most likely to fill the role of standard bearer.
Cornyn and Brady, both Republicans, declined repeated interview requests about the coastal project over a period of months. The state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz, is busy running for president, and his staff has said he is waiting results of further studies. Of the 36 members representing Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives, only five agreed to interviews on the subject.
At the state level, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who has made coastal protection one of his top priorities, said he hopes for support from Brady, who chairs one of the most powerful committees in the U.S. House. He also mentioned Cornyn.
Congressman Randy Weber, a Republican from Friendswood, said he is already pushing the issue, but added that a senator’s support will be critical.
“John Cornyn, of course, a senior senator, majority whip over on the Senate side, would be a great one to champion the cause,” he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also just started studying the issue, and Cornyn’s office emphasized that he signed a letter last October in support of that effort. But the study will take at least five years.
In another letter sent last November, 32 members of the House delegation urged the Army Corps to speed up the process even though it is at the mercy of funding from Congress.
Meanwhile, the next hurricane season is just two months away.
“Don’t just write a letter and think that you’re done with it,” said Michel Bechtel, the mayor of Morgan’s Point, an industrial town on the Houston Ship Channel that was nearly wiped out during Hurricane Ike in 2008. “Let’s get some dollars flowing down here and let’s build it.”
Republican Congressman Pete Olson said the Corps is taking too long and should have started its efforts earlier. But for years it didn’t have the money to study hurricane protection for the Houston region. The agency was able to start last fall only because the Texas General Land Office agreed to pay for half the $20 million study at the insistence of Bush.
Congress is supposed to provide the rest, but the Army Corps will have to ask for it every year until the study is complete.
Asked if he thinks Congress will commit to the $10 million, Olson said the Corps had never given him that dollar figure. “They told you that, but not me that,” he said.
Weber said he thinks the federal government should help pay for a hurricane protection barrier, but he wouldn’t comment on whether his colleagues in Congress agree with him.
“I don’t know, well, maybe,” he said.
See here, here, and here for the background. I say the odds of Congress agreeing to pony up some $10 billion or so for a coastal floodgate system are pretty damn low. I cannot imagine Randy Weber’s nihilistic teabagger caucus members going along with it. Hell, I’d bet money right now that the Texas Republican Congressional caucus is not all on board with the idea, and I’ll even exclude Ted Cruz from consideration. Look at the recent track record of Congressional Republicans not wanting to appropriate funds to places that had been hit by actual disasters (two words: Superstorm Sandy) and ask yourself why they would vote to spend money on a disaster that hasn’t happened and may never do so in their lifetime. All spending is political now, and the death of earmarks makes dealmaking a lot harder. The fact that there isn’t unanimity about the best kind of flood mitigation system doesn’t help, either. Maybe someday, in a different political climate, but not now. Don’t be surprised if you see another article like this being written a couple of years from now.