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hedy hedy hedy Sam Houston bridge will be a statue to vanity

July 26, 2018

Rising like a glorious giant from the sea, the world’s tallest statue is being built in India for the enormous sum of $500 million. The statue will honor the 17th century warrior Chhatrapati Shivaj as he charges on horseback about to face battle. As one might expect in a nation poorer than Nigeria and Papua New Guinea, such a lavish expenditure has caused outrage and protests. How, the furious people ask, could a nation with such pressing needs fail to take care of its own citizens before erecting such a statue?

Regrettably, there are no easy answers to the people of India, but as Houstonians, we can offer them comfort in sharing our own bewilderment that some of the leaders of Harris County are committing an offense of such a similar, shocking nature.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and Harris County Commissioner Jack Morman just successfully lobbied to spend not one, but two times the amount of money it will cost to build the statue of Chhatrapati Shivaj. In other words, they’ll be spending $1 billion dollars to tear down a perfectly fine bridge and replace it with a slightly bigger bridge. Purely on its own, the project would be a catastrophic waste of resources. But of course, nothing can be evaluated without taking account of the bigger picture. When we expand our horizon, we see that this reckless project is being conducted at a time when Greater Houston faces a life or death struggle with flooding. We are spending $1 billion on the needless aesthetic makeover of a bridge when we can’t promise Houstonians that we won’t flood again before the hurricane season ends.

The $1 billon will be spent to replace a two-by-two lane stretch of the Beltway 8, known as the Sam Houston Ship Channel Bridge, with a four-by-four lane bridge. Despite the project’s futility, Commissioner Morman argues that this is money well spent to reduce a traffic jam and address “one of the county’s great needs.” Now, there is no question that Houston has several major traffic issues. Many sections of Interstate 10, Interstate 45, Interstate 59, Texas 288, Texas 290 and the Interstate 610 loop receive over 150,000 vehicles per day, and some stretches even top 180,000 vehicles. The Sam Houston Ship Channel Bridge, however, receives a paltry 55,000 vehicles, one of the lowest totals for a major stretch of highway in Harris County.

Of course, vehicle traffic does not tell the whole story about traffic flow, as a two-lane highway could back up much worse than a four-lane highway even if the four-lane highway had many more vehicles. However, this is not the case for the Sam Houston Ship Channel Bridge. The bridge is a relative mecca for traffic issues in Greater Houston — someone can virtually fly across it compared to the time it takes to drive through one of several other stretches of highway in the region. And fixing these stretches’ issues could be addressed for a fraction of the cost.

Traffic issues also need to be considered cumulatively. Even though this bridge is hardly used by Houston standards, the project could still have merit if it alleviated other areas of congestion. Again, this will not be the case for this project. This bridge is currently 1 of 4 ways to cross the ship channel, all relatively close. A driver can also cross the ship channel at 610 East, the Washburn Tunnel or at the Fred Hartman Bridge, the latter two being only 10 minutes away. Together all of these alternatives constitute as close as Houston gets to excellence in traffic management.

As such, we can safely say that Morman is wrong. The reconstruction of this bridge is hardly “one of the county’s great needs.” But, even if he were right, the project would still be a historically foolish use of resources for our county. We flood like a scene from Noah’s Ark every time a sprinkler system runs too long, or when it downpours for just a few hours like it did on the Fourth of July. Unless we solve flooding, there is no Houston, there is no industry to protect, and resolving traffic congestion issues — particularly where there are none — will be the least of our concerns. We have to prioritize just like every other county, city and country ought to.

Rose is a lawyer in Houston.