The Texas Dept. of Transportation is assessing the Pelican Island Causeway Bridge over the Galveston Channel after a barge allided with it. TxDOT had already been planning to replace the bridge before the incident.

An effort led by the U.S. Coast Guard is also cleaning an estimated 1,000 - 2,000 gallons of vacuum gas oil that spilled from the barge in the incident.

The 3,239-ft-long bascule bridge was built in 1960 and is the only crossing to Pelican Island, which sits north of Galveston in Galveston Bay. At about 10 a.m. May 15, the barge MMLP 321, which is owned by Martin Marine, broke loose due to a coupling issue and collided with part of the bridge. That strike caused concrete from a parallel decommissioned rail line—which no longer spanned the full channel even before the incident—to collapse onto the barge and damaged a tank containing about 160,000 gallons of fuel, according to officials with a unified command formed to address the situation. 

There were no injuries.

The bridge is intermittently open to vehicle and pedestrian traffic leaving the island as officials from TxDOT and Galveston County Navigation District 1 assess its condition. 

“At this point we’ve deemed it’s OK for pedestrian traffic, but until we move the barge we can’t do a full dive assessment,” Capt. Keith Donohue, commander of the Coast Guard Sector Houston-Galveston, told reporters during a press conference.

As of May 17, Coast Guard officials said the barge was no longer discharging oil. They set more than 16,000 ft of protective boom to reduce the spread of the spilled oil. Donohue said that the unified command had recovered 605 gallons of oily water mixture as of May 16, as well as another 5,640 gallons of oil which had leaked on top of the barge but not reached the water. 

It was not immediately clear what caused the barge’s coupling issue, but Rick Freed, vice president of Martin Marine, told reporters that high winds related to severe weather in the area this week had not played a role. 

Pelican_Island_map_ENR.jpgMap courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

TxDOT had already been planning to build a fixed-span bridge west of the current bridge to replace it, as officials say it has reached the end of its structural design life. In a presentation about the plan last August, officials noted that a sudden closure of the current bridge for repairs would cut off access to the island.

The proposed bridge would be 65 ft wide, compared to the 30-ft-wide existing bridge, to add shoulders on the road and a shared use path for pedestrians and cyclists. The bridge’s main span would have 73 ft of vertical clearance, compared to 13 ft with the current bridge, and 238 ft of horizontal clearance, meeting Gulf Intracoastal Waterway requirements. The rail line would be removed as part of the project.

TxDOT officials have estimated the cost of the project at $194 million and said they aim for construction to begin in 2027, though that was before the barge incident.