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Weber, Babin want coastal barrier to be 'national priority' for Trump

Washington, July 6, 2017

Weber, Babin want coastal barrier to be 'national priority' for Trump

The Daily News | By John Wayne Ferguson
Jul 6, 2017 | Link

Two Texas congressmen hope President Donald Trump adds a Texas coastal barrier to the list of $1 trillion in infrastructure projects he has promised the nation.

“We’re making it a national priority as fast as we can,” U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, a Republican from Friendswood, said Thursday, minutes after stepping out of a helicopter at Houston’s Hobby Airport.

Weber and fellow Rep. Brian Babin, a Republican from Woodville, flew over part of the Texas coast that some area leaders hope will one day be protected by a coastal barrier and gate system meant to prevent devastating storm surge from washing over and into industrial areas in Galveston Bay, the Houston Ship Channel and elsewhere.

“You see all those ships lined up out there, wanting to get into the Houston Ship Channel, and you understand the economic impact this area has,” Weber said of his view from the sky. “You understand the jobs and the families that are represented. You understand the devastation that another Ike would bring.”

The representatives are on a weeklong recess from Congress and are scheduled to go back to Washington D.C. next week.

No bill proposing funding for the coastal barrier is being considered in Washington right now. Weber’s staff said one could be proposed once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finishes its study of coastal protection projects. The corps is scheduled to complete the study in 2018.

“This area right here is almost one-third of the gross domestic product of the state of Texas,” Babin said. “That’s why it’s so important to get some surge protection.”

No major storm surge protection improvement has been made to the Texas coast since Hurricane Ike caused an estimated $29 billion in damage to the state in 2008. Several studies have attempted to show the value surge protection would bring to the area. But most improvements since Ike have focused on mitigating damage by raising or hardening infrastructure, rather than stopping the storm surge entirely.

Thursday’s helicopter ride was part of Weber’s activities during the July 4 Congressional recess. Earlier in the day, he recorded a spot for a video meant to advertise the coastal barrier concept on a national level. On Wednesday, he also met with researchers and officials at Texas A&M University in Galveston to discuss the latest details of the proposal.

Weber said he’s also broached the concept with Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, and Elaine Chao, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

An increased push for the coastal barrier in Washington comes after Texas officials have seemingly coalesced in support of a single coastal protection plan.

In April, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush sent a letter to Trump urging the president to support the coastal barrier concept and urging him to add it to his infrastructure plans. More than 60 state and local officials also signed the letter.

Trump has made no public comments about storm protection for the Texas coast.

During his presidential campaign, Trump made improving and repairing U.S. infrastructure a major talking point.

Trump has said he supports investing $1 trillion for infrastructure projects that are built through public-private partnerships. However, that idea does not have universal support.

In May, the Texas House of Representatives rejected a bill that would allow the state to enter into partnerships for highway projects. Legislators cited potential public opposition to new highway tolls.

It is unclear whether a coastal barrier would even qualify for federal funding under the White House’s plan for infrastructure. Babin on Thursday said he could see ways for the barrier to be partially funded by businesses that would be protected by the barrier.

“This will be a public, federal, state, hopefully some private as well,” Babin said.

Local advocates have said that a possible scenario for funding a barrier project would be for another hurricane to strike the Texas Gulf Coast, prompting the release of recovery money similar to what New Orleans received after Hurricane Katrina or New York City did after Superstorm Sandy.

The White House had labeled the first week of June “Infrastructure Week” and was to include a series of events meant to build support for Trump’s public works proposals.

However, most of that week was derailed by other non-infrastructure news, including the Congressional testimony of former FBI Director James Comey.

On June 29, Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican and the chairman of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told reporters the White House had yet to unveil an infrastructure plan and that work on the issue may slip into 2018.

“We’re sort of waiting on the administration to tell us what it is exactly they want to do,” Thune said, according to The Hill.

That could give Weber more time to pitch his proposal.

“President Trump said just a few days ago that he wants America to be completely in the energy driver’s seat,” Weber said. “He wants this to be the world leader in energy. Since we’ve got such a huge output of energy right here in the Texas Gulf Coast, the first thing you don’t want to do is lose that economic engine.”