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County holds out hope for Beach Road

Texas 87 ‘vital’ to ecosystem, security, commerce

BEAUMONT — The Jefferson County Commissioners’ Court isn’t giving up on Beach Road.

Michael “Shane” Sinegal, County Commissioner for Precinct 2, said Monday his goal in life is to have the once popular stretch of Texas 87 between Sabine Pass and High Island restored “hopefully, before I leave this earth.”

The commissioners took a step toward that end Monday afternoon, voting unanimously to file an amendment to the TEA-21 — the result of two federal acts enacted in 1998, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century and the TEA 21 Restoration Act — Congressional High Priority Projects Program.

Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said the county’s amendment serves as an official request to the federal government — a plea to designate the 21-mile stretch of Texas 87 between Sabine Pass and High Island as a “priority project” the county and Texas Department of Transportation could tackle together.

“People don’t understand that Highway 87 is a huge partnership,” Sinegal said Tuesday. “Everything we do in that area between Sabine Pass and High Island is to get support from national, state and local sources to get Highway 87 back up and restored. It’s one of my ‘bucket list’ items, for lack of a better term. Because it’s not the No. 1 issue in Jefferson County, but in my precinct, restoring Highway 87 is right up there with creating more jobs.”

Fred Jackson, assistant to Judge Branick, said the Texas Department of Transportation had set aside money to restore Beach Road decades ago, but the project never moved beyond the planning stages. Restoration efforts have ebbed and flowed in the years since, he said, but the county never completely abandons Texas 87.

“This is a 40-year story in the making,” Jackson said, laughing, Tuesday. “No one will ever completely give up hope on this road. There is a hope now, if the stars align, that we could get some restoration money — and Texas Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and so many of the other agencies are behind us to get this road restored.”

Sinegal said restoring Texas 87 — originally closed in 1989 after Hurricane Jerry made it impassable and further devastated by Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Ike — is vital to the area’s security and economy.

“Safety is a huge concern for restoring Highway 87,” he said. “If something happens at Valero or in one of these new LNG plants, the people in Sabine Pass can only escape by boat or by air — they can’t go the back way on Highway 87 anymore. If they don’t have a boat, they’re trapped until helicopters arrive.

“Commerce is another driving force. I’m from Port Arthur — I remember driving up and down Beach Road 1,000 times growing up. Beach Road always had some of the best seafood restaurants, the best stores, the best beach property. That used to be one of the prime drives. When that road closed, it didn’t kill Sabine Pass — because they refuse to let it die — but it definitely hurt their economy.”

Sinegal said restoring Texas 87 won’t be an easy job, not just because of the massive funds it would take to completely rebuild a highway but because of the very ecosystem the new road would protect.

“There’s a huge ecological aspect in restoring Highway 87, because it’s all connected — the beach restoration, the dune restoration, the marsh restoration. We’ve got to consider all of these factors when working on each of these restoration projects. Because it’s going to take every one of them to bring this area back,” Sinegal said.

“We’ve known this all along, but I think Hurricane Ike really made Highway 87 a priority again,” he added. “Hurricane Ike had a 20-foot tidal surge predicted. Water got 12 to 15 feet deep all the way up to (Texas) 73. The Gulf of Mexico moved inland — people lost their houses, their lives because of the storm surge.

“We’ve been told an inch of marsh can knock down a foot of tidal surge. If you took all of our marsh land and made it flat, the tidal surge for Hurricane Ike could have made it all the way into Beaumont. Having the marsh area, a road that’s elevated and our dunes would help keep those tidal surges down — while protecting our marsh ecosystem year-round.”

Don Rao, Jefferson County Engineering director, said protecting the ecosystem while alleviating tidal surges from future storms will take a three-prong approach — restored dunes, a county-wide berm and a new Beach Road.

“The road is not something we can just go down there and build,” Rao said Tuesday. “We’ve had to prioritize the different projects based on funding and practicality, so first we’re building a berm — a clay levee — and restoring our dunes. The burn will be about 300 feet in from the shore across the entire county, and the dunes will be in front, on the grass land on the beach.”

Rao said the Engineering Department is looking to have the first phase of the county berm project completed by the end of August.

“Right now, we’re focusing on bringing in some off-shore sand for a small area where the high tides are getting into the marsh,” he said. “The hope is we’ll get enough funding form the BP oil spill to completely put sand on the beach — so the dunes that would be constructed later would help keep the berm in tact, which would help keep the new highway in tact, which would help protect the marsh and so on.”

Jackson said the hope is for Texas 87 to act as another seawall, but restoring “20-plus miles” of road and dunes is going to be an expensive endeavor.

“It will be a long, long process,” he said. “But it will be a dream come true to finally open this road up again.”

Twitter: @crhenderson90