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The Not-So-Great Outdoors

Three years after voters approved bonds for fixes at state parks, not all of the money has been spent — despite facilities that haven't been upgraded since the 1930s and recent hurricane damage that hasn't been repaired.

USS Battleship Texas and the San Jacinto monument

[12:54 p.m.: This story has been updated. An earlier version misstated the amount of bond money allocated to state park upgrades.]

The Battleship Texas is perpetually sinking. Three years after voters agreed to spend $1 billion on upgrades at a variety of state agencies, including long-neglected state park facilities, workers at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site had to shove a wadded rag in a hole to keep the vessel afloat.

“The reality is the ship is in jeopardy every day,” says Steven Howell, executive director of the Battleship Texas Foundation.

After newspaper reports of disrepair and neglect in parks statewide, voters in 2007 approved Proposition 4, which allows the state to issue $1 billion in general obligation bonds. But so far, just 46 bonds have been issued for state park upgrades totaling $69 million — less than 7 percent of the total approved. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staffers are working on dozens of upgrades around the state. But a spokesman says the process to get the bonds approved and use the dollars is slow and cumbersome.

TPWD spokesman Robert McCorkle says that when all the repairs will get made depends on a slew of factors, including lawmakers’ decisions, the bonding process and finding contractors to do the work. “It’s state government — hello!” McCorkle says. “I mean, in a nutshell, it just takes a long time to get these types of projects rolling.”

Park advocates agree that facilities statewide are looking and working better, but they say much more could be done to improve Texas’ parkland. “Every park needs expansion of their services,” says John Cobb, president of Texans for State Parks. “We’re in direct competition when it comes to camping with the mom-and-pop and [Kampgrounds of America], and we need to equalize.”

Battleship Texas is set to receive $25 million — the largest of the bonds so far. The money will pay to "dry berth" the ship, but the work has not begun. Meanwhile, corrosive salt water from the Houston Ship Channel keeps flowing into and being pumped out of the ship, Howell says.

In June, an employee at the San Jacinto Battleground noticed the ship was sitting a little lower than usual in the water. The next day, the worker noticed it was even lower. Park workers discovered a new leak on the starboard side of the ship: One of the pumps had failed, and about 105,000 gallons of seawater had to be pumped out of the ship. They stuffed a rag into the hole to stop the leak and replaced the broken pump, but the steel hull that was about an inch and a half thick when the ship was built in 1912 is now paper-thin, Howell says.

“We need to get it out of the water,” Howell says. “We’re spending a lot of money on pumps and electricity to run these pumps. The problem is, we don’t know when the next leak is going to pop up.”

And if there’s a power outage, or a hurricane, Howell says, the ship could be in dire straits. Despite the ship’s desperate condition, it could be nearly four years before it’s finally pulled from the Gulf.

The $25 million has been secured for dry berthing the ship, confirms Scott Stover, deputy director of TPWD's infrastructure division, and a contractor has been selected to do the work, though negotiations on a final fee continue. Once construction starts, Howell says, hauling the enormous structure onto dry land will take about 18 months. He hopes the dry berthing will be finished in time for ship’s centennial celebration in March 2014.

Yet the battleship is hardly the only troubled TPWD site. Reports around the time of the bond election described decrepit facilities, broken bathrooms and unkempt grounds at many of the state’s 90-plus parks. Responding to public outcry, lawmakers increased the TPWD budget and asked voters to approve the bonds.

So far, about $44 million have been approved for fixes to other facilities — primarily cabins, bathrooms, utility systems and the like. More than $1 million is being spent to renovate Bastrop State Park facilities that were built more than 60 years ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Thirty-year-old restrooms at Brazos Bend State Park are getting new plumbing. At Daingerfield State Park in northeast Texas, the 75-year-old Bass Lodge, the concession building and boathouse are being renovated. Longhorn Cavern in Central Texas is getting a new light system to replace the one installed in 1938. Stover says the $44 million will fund 45 projects that are slated for completion by Nov. 2011.

“A lot of things that just absolutely had to be done are being done now,” says Cobb, who has visited 42 state parks in the last year and a half. But he says much more could be done to improve parks with the bonds that still haven’t been approved. Many of the state’s park facilities, he says, were built in the 1930s and haven’t been upgraded or are still in need of repairs. And, he says, facilities along the Texas Coast that were damaged by recent hurricanes haven’t been fixed. “We need a lot more,” Cobb says. “We ought to have it where when people come in they’re going to want to stay in the park.”

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