Shared from the 2/26/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Possible Brays delay spurs residents’ ire

Residents ready for movement on bridge work

Picture
Steve Gonzales / Staff photographer

Residents along Brays Bayou are upset over possible new delays to Project Brays, which was approved in the 1990s but is still incomplete.

Picture
Steve Gonzales / Staff photographer

The holdup on the replacement of three bridges over Brays Bayou is just the latest reminder of the disconnect between the urgency residents feel about flood mitigation projects after Hurricane Harvey and the laggard pace of the region’s recovery from the storm.

New potential delays on a $480 million flood protection project along Brays Bayou that already has proceeded haphazardly for nearly a quarter-century have strained the relationship between the Harris County Flood Control District and the watershed’s residents, many of whom live deep inside the floodplain.

The holdup on the replacement of three bridges over the bayou, prompted by the discovery of utility lines in two of the spans, is just the latest reminder of the disconnect between the urgency residents feel about flood mitigation projects after Hurricane Harvey and the laggard pace of the region’s recovery from the storm.

Though work has continued on some flood mitigation projects underway before Harvey hit, and officials have begun a $69 million dredging effort on the San Jacinto River, no major projects have come close to starting construction in the 18 months since the massive storm made landfall.

Meanwhile, thousands of Harris County residents at risk of flooding anxiously await the second full hurricane season since Harvey in 95 days.

The county has begun work on scores of projects from the $2.5 billion flood control bond voters approved in August, but most still are in the design phase. Just as much money remains lodged in the bureaucracy of disaster recovery.

Funds months away

Texas will get $4.7 billion for flood mitigation projects that Congress appropriated in 2017, for instance, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development is months behind publishing rules outlining how those funds could be used; HUD Secretary Ben Carson in a call with reporters Monday said he expects the guidelines to be issued in May, though the funds will not be available for months after that.

Cities and counties also have failed to shake loose much of the $1.1 billion in flood mitigation funds the Federal Emergency Management Agency has earmarked for Texas. Houston has had no project applications approved through that Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, and the only funds released to the county flood control district have been to buy out repeatedly flooded homes and study the San Jacinto watershed, not for projects to address flooding problems.

Those delays have hamstrung the recovery, as local officials have been hesitant to spend their own funds on repairs or infrastructure projects when waiting to secure federal approval could result in Washington covering between 75 percent and 100 percent of the cost.

Steve Costello, Houston’s recovery czar, said a long-planned effort by the city and county to turn the defunct Inwood Golf Course into a detention basin reflects that tension.

State officials signed off on the city’s request to use some of the $1.1 billion in FEMA mitigation dollars for the Inwood project in August, but FEMA has questioned how the effort’s cost-benefit ratio is calculated and said its rules prevent the work from proceeding, Costello said.

The county had designed the next phase of the project and was ready to start digging, but FEMA rules require that the full project be designed before work can begin. Tired of waiting, Costello said, the county has begun designing the last part of the project even though doing so could make its current costs ineligible for reimbursement.

The city’s other pending applications are no further along, he said.

“It really is frustrating,” Costello said. “We’re meeting every two to three weeks with the reviewing team, the technical people as well as the environment people, and going over each application and saying, ‘OK What’s missing? What do you need? Why do you need it?’ It’s just a process that a lot of people are frustrated by.”

Residents along Brays Bayou in southwest Houston — some of whom have flooded three times in the last four years — hope officials can draw on the same sense of urgency for Project Brays.

“It’s an emergency situation,” Meyerland resident Cheryl Israel said. “They need to do everything possible to make this happen … I want to believe they can do it.”

Along Brays, the flood control district is considering canceling two construction contracts to replace bridges at Stella Link, Ardmore and Buffalo Speedway. Deputy Executive Director Matt Zeve said engineers recently learned AT&T has lines on Stella Link and Buffalo Speedway that the utility said it is unable to move until April and November, respectively.

“Unfortunately, the flood control district awarded both of those contracts before we had the utility conflicts resolved, which in hindsight was not the right decision,” Zeve said.

As part of Project Brays, the flood control district plans to modify 32 bridges by raising the spans and widening the channel beneath, to improve the bayou’s flow.

Zeve added that the flood control district realized that under its current plans, as many as nine Brays Bayou intersections could be closed simultaneously, a traffic nightmare for nearby residents and fans traveling to NRG Park.

The flood control district has asked Commissioners Court to approve a 90-day traffic study Tuesday to determine how to proceed with minimal disruptions. The district late last year agreed to postpone work on the Ardmore bridge after Third Ward residents complained they had not been sufficiently informed about traffic disruptions caused by the project.

$400,000 loss

Zeve said the county plans to put the projects back out to bid later this year, but will have wasted as much as $400,000 on the original contracts. He assured watershed residents Project Brays will be complete in 2021 or the following year.

Some residents remain skeptical and fear a return of the repeated delays that have hampered Project Brays since it first was approved in the 1990s. A nearly three-hour meeting between the flood control district and the Brays Bayou Association on Friday grew heated at times, Zeve said. In an online post to neighbors on Saturday, association president Charles Goforth panned the proposed traffic study and warned it could postpone the project three years or longer.

Residents along Brays are not the only ones worried that the relative absence of work in their areas has left them at risk in the next storm.

As part of aproject to remove nearly 4,500 homes and businesses from the 100-year floodplain in Kashmere Gardens along Hunting Bayou, the flood control district is well underway on a large detention basin near Homestead Road and started excavations in the channel as part of a plan to widen 4 miles of the bayou. County officials at a recent meeting said the $165 million effort will not be completed until 2021, said Keith Downey, president of the Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood Council.

“One lady said, ‘What am I supposed to do between now and then?’ That’s what people are frustrated about,” Downey said. “Their stress levels go up when they hear rain is imminent, and they don’t see a lot of progress. We all know the issues, we know what the problems are in the community — people need to see results.” zach.despart@chron.com mike.morris@chron.com

See this article in the e-Edition Here