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Inflation could push the cost of Texas’ coastal barrier project — already expected to be the largest civil engineering project in U.S. history — to $57 billion, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said.
That’s 68% higher than the Corps’ most recent estimate of $34 billion to build the “Ike Dike,” the massive system of gates across the mouth of Galveston Bay intended to protect the Houston region from storm surge during hurricanes.
The higher number is due to inflation and other rising costs if the project is paid for over the expected 20-year period it would take to design and build, the Corps said during the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership’s Wednesday night meeting. The lower price of $34 billion reflected the project cost in current dollars.
As costs balloon, it’s unclear when — or whether — the project will begin construction: Congress must agree to fund the project over the coming decades, and voters in five Texas coastal counties would likely have to approve the use of tax dollars to meet a 35% local cost share, typical for such projects.
Named for the destructive 2008 hurricane that hit Galveston, the Ike Dike gates are the biggest chunk of Texas’ proposed coastal barrier, which will also include miles of dunes along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula and strengthened flood protection around Galveston Island, such as raising the existing seawall.
Though Congress already authorized the project, Congress still hasn’t appropriated any money for it. There’s a massive backlog of federal projects — worth $100 billion — fighting for funding. U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, tried and failed to convince his colleagues to appropriate just $100 million for the Coastal Texas project earlier this year.
Melissa Samet, the National Wildlife Federation’s legal director for Water Resources and Coasts who has observed many Corps engineering projects, said it’s almost certain the total cost of the coastal barrier will increase again once engineers begin to complete more in-depth and technical design plans; right now, the plans are largely conceptual.
That can be a challenging political problem: As costs increase, she said, “Congress pays attention.”
The project doesn’t need all the money upfront, said Lt. Col. Ian O’Sullivan, deputy commander for mega projects for the Corps’ Galveston district. The Corps could build the project if it got $100 million the first year, $500 million the following year and $2.5 billion every year after that until the project is complete, O’Sullivan said.
But that’s just one way to do it.
“With something this big and this complicated, there’s a million different ways to slice the pie,” O’Sullivan said.
Under the Corps’ plan, the federal government is responsible for 65% of the cost. Most of the rest will likely fall to the Gulf Coast Protection District, which includes Chambers, Galveston, Orange, Jefferson and Harris counties. The district, created by the Texas Legislature, has the power to levy taxes to pay for the project — if approved by voters.
Nicole Sunstrum, director of the Gulf Coast Protection District, said the increased cost estimate shows the project would be less expensive if it could be paid for and built faster.
“It is imperative for us to continue to push for funding, allowing us to accelerate the delivery of the project and ultimately reduce the final amount,” Sunstrum said.
Danielle Goshen, a policy specialist for the National Wildlife Federation, said she thinks ballooning costs put the project at risk of never being built.
“This is a huge burden for the five counties that will be asked to vote on increases in property taxes,” said Goshen, who has criticized the project due to potential ecosystem disruptions. “I do believe that we’ll start to see political support for this start to wane.”
“The hope that this will get funded is getting smaller and smaller,” she added.
If voters don’t approve all of the local cost share, the project may have to go to the Legislature for funds. There is some indication that lawmakers are open to appropriating money for the Ike Dike: Earlier this year, state lawmakers approved $550 million of the state’s budget surplus to the Gulf Coast Protection District for coastal barrier projects.
The Corps took six years and spent $21 million to put together a proposal for the project, expected to be the largest in the agency’s history.
Environmental groups have criticized the plan as a misguided effort to control nature. They predict it will hurt the ecosystem by removing habitat for birds and restricting water flow between Galveston Bay and the ocean, potentially harming wetlands, water quality and marine species that move between the two at different stages of life.
The barrier would be vulnerable to being overtopped. It’s designed to stop a storm surge as high as 22 feet.