Lone Star Leap: Texas Pushes for Greater Infrastructure Resiliency

Legislators take up infrastructure resiliency to offset the next Hurricane Harvey.

  • Texas is looking to establish a strong framework of resilient infrastructure
  • Legislation to make local infrastructure more resilient is now being considered
  • One solution is a new institutional fund

Infrastructure resiliency could get more attention in the state of Texas this year before the destruction from Hurricane Harvey fades from memory.

With a history of hurricanes — and drought and tornadoes — Texas is looking to establish a strong framework of resilient infrastructure. The concern is paramount for a state with 367 miles of coastline.

Resiliency is an issue states around the country are facing in the wake of damaging storms over the past decade: Hurricane Katrina in the Southeast (2005); Sandy in the Northeast (2012); Irma in the Florida Keys (2017) ; Maria in Puerto Rico (2017); Michael in Florida; Florence in the Carolinas (2018) and devastating wildfires on the West Coast.

In Texas, property destruction wasn’t Harvey’s only legacy. The state’s pocketbook took a direct hit from the storm: losses totaled $120 billion, according to the Texas General Land Office. It was the costliest hurricane in state history.

New Funding for Resiliency

State legislators will need to decide this year how to pay for about $2.5 billion in shortfalls due to Harvey expenses. The Texas Legislature, which is currently in session, only meets for 140 days every other year.

Although school finance reform is currently taking center stage, a number of bills and resolutions that could improve local infrastructure could come up for consideration; including HB 1800, which would create a statewide resiliency fund.

Justin Till, chief of staff for the bill’s author, Rep. Greg Bonnen said that Hurricane Harvey was the impetus for creating a resiliency fund.

“While local governments are generally responsible for building and maintaining infrastructure, they often either choose not to for short-term cost-savings reasons; or, they can’t afford to build/maintain adequate infrastructure on their limited revenue streams,” Till said. “Further: the match required of local governments for FEMA or other federally funded projects is difficult to come up with post-disaster.”

Till said the fund would incentivize planning and construction, as well as give relief to local communities after a disaster.

“This legislative session is a good time to consider an infrastructure resiliency fund because the state is still recovering from Hurricane Harvey and it’s also enjoying a good budget year with high tax revenues,” he said.

The Legislature will decide whether to withdraw money from its emergency fund to pay state Harvey-related expenses. The money would come from what is commonly called the rainy day fund (the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund), which was created in the mid 1980s when the state was in the midst of an oil & gas bust.

“The match required of local governments for FEMA or other federally funded projects is difficult to come up with post-disaster,” Justin Till, chief of staff for Texas State Rep. Greg Bonnen

On February 25, Texas learned that the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) approved $692 million in Hurricane Harvey relief funds on top of another roughly $5 billion that had been approved previously.

There was $11 billion in the rainy day fund at the end of 2018; and officials say that it could reach $15 billion in about two years. For comparison, State Comptroller Glenn Hegar told lawmakers this year not to exceed a $119.1 billion biennium budget. But it’s still not enough to cover maintenance and construction costs.

In 2015, Texans voted to divert about 50% of the money going into the Rainy Day Fund to pay for state highways. Money had also been taken out in 2011 in order to address the lingering effects of the Great Recession.

Notably, initial funding for HB 1800 would come from the Rainy Day fund. Although additional general revenue or bond authority could exist for it as well.

“School finance is rightly at the forefront of our deliberations; but, there is widespread support for creating this fund or something similar to it,” Till said.

Creating a Legacy Fund

Hegar has also promoted taking a portion of the Rainy Day fund and investing in what he calls the Texas Legacy Fund. That would move some money out of short-term investments and into those with potential for higher returns.

Whether any diverted money would go toward infrastructure resiliency remains to be seen, but the idea is to address long-term financial obligations. Hegar has specifically mentioned the Teacher Retirement System, Texas’s prepaid tuition plan and deferred maintenance of state-owned buildings as possible recipients of the endowment’s earnings.

A joint resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to create the Texas Legacy Fund is now under consideration in the House Appropriations Committee. Legislators would determine of how much money gets moved.

Other Legislation

There are also a handful of other resiliency-related bills, such as SB 1003. The legislation, authored by Sen. Bob Hall of Edgewood, would make Texas more resilient to future disasters affecting its electrical power.

“Texas is uniquely positioned to be the first state to take action to protect its electric grid, because it is the only state with a grid exclusively within its boundaries,” the bill reads.

The bill specifically mentions the threat of an electromagnetic pulse attack (EMP); cyber attacks; and attacks on physical infrastructure. In addition, SB 1003 also proposes the establishment of resilience standards for microgrids within the state.

The bill would create a new administrative body called the Texas Grid Security Commission; its membership would be comprised of a variety of service sectors including law enforcement and emergency services. Information about grid security and vulnerabilities would be strictly confidential for members.

Another bill, SB 6, has 17 authors and would provide emergency and disaster management, response and recovery. The bill appears to be gaining some traction after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick expressed support earlier this year.

The bill is based on recommendations in the Rebuild Texas Commission’s report on Hurricane Harvey and would include a debris management plan. Notably, debris from Hurricane Harvey, including toxic waste, was a months-long challenge.

Testimony on the bill was taken in the Water & Rural Affairs Committee on March 11. It has yet to be advanced.

Learning from Harvey

In the wake of Harvey, Texas’ General Lands Office (GLO) produced a 380-page report which urged the prioritization of resiliency throughout the state.

“Texas will not only assess projects and consider state-run programs that replace or repair lost property but will also seek to invest resources in efforts that promise to mitigate damage from a wide range future disaster types,” the report said. “Although this can increase costs initially, mitigating efforts can greatly reduce the cost of future damages by a ratio of 6:1.”

The report noted that infrastructure resiliency solutions add 15-20% to a project’s total cost. Those may include:

  • Elevating critical systems, facilities, and roadways above base flood elevation
  • Installing backup power generators for critical systems (water, sewer, etc.)
  • Storm water management including installing retention basins, larger culverts and debris guards, erosion control solutions
  • Back-up communication systems
  • Supporting local community efforts to enhance building codes and regulations

But the state was already working on resiliency before Hurricane Harvey hit. In 2015, the GLO started the Hurricane Preparedness and Planning initiative to pool local, state and federal resources to prioritize efforts to build a resilient Texas coast.

In the wake of Harvey, Houston is looking at a variety of ways make its infrastructure systems more resilient, and not just repair infrastructure that could be damaged again.

The Harris County Flood Control District, for example, recently announced it is set to receive a $320,000 federal grant to evaluate whether building underground tunnels to move storm water to the Houston ship channel would be an effective flood protection strategy.

According to local media, engineers envision a system in which tunnels at least 20 feet wide and 150 feet deep use gravity to move water from upstream bayous located as much as 30 miles away to the ship channel. Meanwhile, back in Austin, it’s still too early to know whether the Legislature will take action on any resiliency bills that could help Houston or other parts of the state.

The regular session adjourns on May 27.

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