The man running through Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station in late 1910 hoped to buy a very special ticket — the first sold for a train ready to traverse a new tunnel beneath the Hudson River. The engineering feat linking New Jersey and New York City would instantly transform the lives of thousands of commuters.
More than a century later, the tunnel is still in use, an emblem of how the country’s critical infrastructure rests — often precariously — on work carried out generations ago.
Now, after years of failed attempts by presidents of both parties to make transformational investments, Washington has agreed to start building new physical foundations for the nation’s progress. The House late Friday passed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan spending package pushed by President Biden and passed by the Senate in August.
It is, in many ways, meant to upgrade the nation, replacing infrastructure on the decline that is badly showing its age.
The highways built mid-century as an extensive interstate system are hampered these days by outdated road designs that contribute to crashes and congestion. The bridges that are essential connections within urban and rural areas often face costly repairs or replacement. Public transit systems haven’t kept up with growth or changing travel patterns, leaving Americans ever more dependent on cars to get around.
“Somewhere along the way, we stopped investing in ourselves, we stopped investing in our people, and we’ve risked losing our edge as a nation,” Biden said Saturday.
The new money represents the largest investment in building and fixing bridges since construction of the interstate highway system, which began in the 1950s. It also includes what administration officials call the biggest investments in transit and clean electricity transmission in U.S. history. There are tens of billions each for extending passenger rail, replacing lead drinking water pipes and expanding high-speed Internet access.
The funding could support projects from coast to coast to coast: A plan costing only a few million dollars would boost bus service in one smaller community, while another with a multibillion-dollar price tag would spur a massive undertaking to guard cities against rising sea levels. It could also boost plans to overhaul the cramped, century-old rail connections linking New York and New Jersey.
The Washington Post took a look at 10 sites that illustrate urgent needs or ambitious aspirations. In several locations, we did so through the experiences of individuals who greatly understand the impact this infrastructure work could have.
— By Ian Duncan and Michael Laris
Interstate 70/Vail Pass
Interstate 70/Vail Pass, Colorado
Proposed in 2011 | $140.4 million estimated cost
Construction is underway, with completion slated for 2024.
Notable: The highway portion through Vail Pass — elevation 10,666 feet — has the highest crash rate, per million vehicle miles, on I-70 in Colorado.
Biggest challenge: Steep grades and tight turns make construction slow going, while extreme winter weather cuts the work season short. Major pileups in the pass are common.
Jackknifed semis. Seventy-car pileups. Avalanches. Officer Bill Clausen of the Vail Police Department has seen it all — and responded to plenty of the accidents that give the mountain corridor through Vail Pass its deadly reputation.
“We have crashes in the middle of the day and the middle of the night,” he says, “all year long.”
Each day, an average of 22,000 passenger vehicles and tractor-trailers climb up and down its 7 percent grades, navigating tight curves while spectacular views of mountain peaks compete for attention. The pass can be treacherous even when the weather is good, especially for drivers ill-prepared for its special challenges at more than two miles elevation. But it’s generally unavoidable since it links eastern and western Colorado. The state’s ski industry, which generates an estimated $4.8 billion annually, depends on it.
“It’s kind of a lifeline,” Clausen says. “Plenty of people come from the west, but it’s the main thoroughfare for the higher population areas in the east. They need that route; there’s no other way.”
When Vail Pass was dedicated in 1978 — in honor of highway architect Charles “Charley” Vail — it was heralded as a masterpiece of modern engineering. Its sweeping design, and how it was incorporated into such a dramatic setting, won awards. One exit boasted a solar-heated rest area.
Immediately, it became an integral thoroughfare for tourists, cross-country travelers, truckers and locals like Clausen.
But the state’s booming economy and surging population collide on the pass. When this stretch of I-70 was completed in the 1970s, only 2.2 million people lived in Colorado. Now 5.7 million do, a number that’s expected to grow by more than a third in the next three decades.
With only two lanes, the pass can’t accommodate all that traffic. A crash that might not cause a backup elsewhere can force hours-long closures here. State officials estimate that each hour results in $1 million in economic losses, and between 2014 and 2017 alone, the pass was shut down for 1,548 hours. The major reconfiguration now underway will create an eastbound auxiliary lane for emergency responders — to help ensure the pass can remain open through all but the worst wrecks.
The bad ones become part of the lore here. A prime example: the 2014 incident in which a car descending toward Vail hit a tanker truck, then plunged 120 feet over a bridge railing. The vehicle landed in eight feet of snow, which cushioned the impact enough that both driver and passenger survived.
Some of the corridor’s dangers are pure Colorado: whiteout snowstorms and swaths of ice that cause terrifying spinouts. There’s also the threat posed by animals large and small, especially during seasonal migrations.
Clausen remembers the encounter involving a county bus and large elk that was trying to cross the interstate. “No one was hurt,” he says. “But the elk really messed that bus up.”
Six new wildlife underpasses and improved fencing will reduce such crashes by 80 percent, officials predict.
The 55-year-old Clausen, a patrol officer since 2003, drives Vail Pass on his way to work from Breckenridge to Vail. Even on sunny days, he knows he could be pulled away on a moment’s notice to head up to a crash on the pass.
He can’t wait for the improvement project to be finished in three years. “There’s no doubt about it,” he says. “We need it.”
Story by Erin Blakemore
Photos by Chet Strange
Asheville Regional Airport
Asheville Regional Airport, North Carolina
Proposed in 2018 | $230 million estimated cost
Expansion of aircraft parking is underway, and an 18-month design phase is nearing completion in advance of a phased opening to end mid-2025.
Notable: It took 57 years for the airport to hit the 1 million annual passenger mark in 2018. If not for the coronavirus pandemic, it was on track to double that number in 2020.
Biggest challenge: Overcrowding in the existing terminal’s narrow corridor is common during peak hours as travelers go to and from their gates. That is likely to worsen over the next three years as sections of the terminal are demolished and reconstructed.
Asheville once was a small, sleepy Appalachian enclave cradling the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Its airport matched that size and vibe, with a single runway, a one-story terminal and the oldest control tower in the country.
Today, both Asheville and AVL are bursting at the seams.
“I was a child when I first flew out of this airport,” says Wendy Banks, a native of nearby Haywood County. “It was tiny back then.”
The city is now home for the 53-year-old Banks, who owns a company that provides corrosion control services and concrete degradation repairs for municipal water and wastewater treatment systems throughout the Southeast.
As her business has grown, Banks has also managed projects globally from Mexico to Madagascar. Pre-pandemic, she and her employees flew tens of thousands of miles a year in and out of better-connected airports. And this summer, after the company was awarded an international contract from the State Department, she drove more than two hours before boarding her plane to Washington, D.C. “I flew out of Charlotte … because we didn’t have a direct flight.”
Looking ahead, Banks is hoping for more of that access and efficiency at the airport less than a half-hour from her front door.
Asheville Regional Airport opened in 1961, when the city’s population was around 60,000. It’s now approaching 100,000, and Buncombe County has doubled in the same period to 260,000. In a region known for a century as “Land of the Sky,” the growth has been driven by a mild, four-season climate, rugged mountains and white water, bluegrass and beer, and a robust service industry to handle what are now millions of visitors annually as well as the many more locals.
Yet with only seven gates and a finite number of arrivals, departures and destinations, the airport has been throttled in its efforts to keep up with demand. In 2014, the airport authority launched a $75 million expansion called Project SOAR. Its most significant feature: an improved 8,000-foot runway, almost 15 percent longer than its predecessor. That means more passengers on larger jets and nonstop flights to destinations such as Boston, Chicago and Minneapolis.
Just as SOAR finishes up, officials are ready to go even bigger. To accommodate the airlines now landing here — JetBlue is set to become the sixth carrier next June — they’re moving forward on a new terminal with nearly double the capacity. It’s seen as critical for the region’s long-term economic future.
Banks is among the plan’s boosters. In addition to her business travel, she flies frequently for pleasure with her husband, William, a podiatrist. “He has the wanderlust and a bucket list that probably includes most countries,” she says. (Even after the next expansion is completed, however, destinations abroad will still require connections.)
Convenience is “everything,” Banks stresses as she weaves through the airport, pulling her red roll-along suitcase toward a gate at the far end. Lines as people get ready to board often snake down the crowded corridor.
“We fly around the country, but we also fly around the world and being able to get to the Asheville airport means we’re 25 minutes from the house,” she says. “The idea of flying into Knoxville or Atlanta or Charlotte, it’s like, ‘Oh, the trip’s not over.’ When we land here, it feels like we’re home.”
Story by Cory Vaillancourt
Photos by Jacob Biba
Jasper Ocean Terminal
Proposed in 2007 | More than $4.5 billion estimated cost
Dates for construction and completion remain in flux.
Fifteen hundred acres on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, just a few miles downstream from the Port of Savannah, is the targeted site for this massive terminal project. As proposed, it could handle some of the world’s largest container ships and help meet cargo demand in the southeast through mid-century.
Notable: When fully operational, the Jasper Ocean Terminal would have the capacity to transfer 8 million, 20-foot cargo containers a year.
Biggest challenge: The project’s development, which has involved Jasper County, S.C., as well as the state port authorities in South Carolina and Georgia, depends in part on substantial improvements to ground transportation infrastructure such as area highways and rail lines.
A ship stacked high with containers waits at the Port of Savannah, which moved a record volume of cargo in fiscal 2021. The proposed Jasper Ocean Terminal would accommodate even higher demand -- if the site in South Carolina's low country ever gets built. (Photos by Stephen B. Morton/AP)
New Harmony Bridge
New Harmony Bridge, Indiana/Illinois
Proposed in 2012 | More than $15 million estimated cost
Even if funding is secured this year, repairs are several years away.
Notable: Built as a private toll bridge in 1930 — and opened with great ceremony — in 1941 it was sold to a special commission created by Congress to purchase and manage the bridge.
Biggest challenge: Untangling the issue of who’s responsible for the historic, two-lane bridge has long been the biggest roadblock, says Rodney Clark, president of Indiana’s New Harmony and Wabash River Bridge Authority. “Getting it funded is the only [remaining] obstacle. This is truly a shovel-ready project.”
From where he lives a few miles from the flood plain of the Wabash River, Illinois farmer Clint Spencer often would drive across the New Harmony Bridge into Indiana. He’d head over the bridge for a beer and a bite in New Harmony. He’d use it to get to doctor appointments in Evansville. And the corn and soybeans he grows on his 1,100 acres would journey across the bridge as well.
But when the bridge closed nearly a decade ago, a trip that had taken just a few minutes became a headache nearly a half-hour long.
The bridge has sat locked and unused ever since, weeds growing through cracks, its toll booth gutted by fire. The road surface is so worn, rebar shows in spots.
Folks on each side of the Wabash want it reopened.
“As far as somebody coming out and saying, ‘This is the wrong thing to do’ or ‘This is a waste of money,’ I haven’t heard that from anybody,” Spencer says.
The structure, located on what was once the main route between Louisville and St. Louis, has a complicated history. A congressionally created entity, the White County Bridge Commission, owned it starting in 1941, and the bridge some years generated so much toll revenue that the commission was caught up in a major corruption scandal in the 1950s.
As traffic shifted to alternate routes, though, revenue dropped. When millions of dollars of critical repairs were needed in 2012, the commission couldn’t afford them — and, as a nongovernmental body, couldn’t seek state or federal help.
“It’s something that the federal government created and then they didn’t want to take it back,” Spencer gripes. “It created a mess.”
Without the bridge, the 57-year-old farmer pays a lot more to haul his crops to grain elevators in the river port of Mount Vernon. The nearest major hospital is far less accessible, which explains the insurance coverage he bought for an air ambulance service.
A few years ago, local advocates finally got both states’ congressional delegations involved, which culminated in 2019 with President Donald Trump’s signature on a law allowing authorities in Illinois and Indiana to take ownership of the bridge and then seek public funding for its restoration. They applied for a federal grant in July.
Support for the bridge differs by state.
The Illinois side of the river is dominated by farmland and pump jacks, and agriculture and oil companies would greatly benefit from the crossing’s return.
On the Indiana side sits New Harmony, a quaint town of less than 1,000 that was founded by a German religious group and later experimented with socialism and utopian living. Tourists come for its gardens, architecture, art galleries, restaurants and stores. The hope is that more visitors would arrive if the bridge were reopened. Less welcome would be industrial traffic again rumbling down the town’s main thoroughfare — an issue definitely a ways off.
Spencer, who sits on the bridge authority in his state, just hopes the federal government will allocate the money needed.
“The main focus for the government is mostly the cities,” he says during conversation at a local coffee shop. “The rural areas really get kicked to the side in a lot of instances just for the money and everything. It kind of boils down to politics and votes.”
His coffee finished, he heads out. Spencer is one of the few people with a key to the bridge, so he walks across the river to where he parked his truck and drives on.
Story by Josh Wood
Photos by Luke Sharrett
Edenville and Sanford dams
Proposed in 2020 | $250 million to $300 million estimated cost
Debris removal and structure stabilization are underway as part of a multiphase recovery to conclude in 2026.
Torrential rains last year caused a double dam failure, which drained two lakes, forced 10,000 people to flee and left $200 million in damage. After the dams’ owner declared bankruptcy, the local counties used eminent domain to take control of them. A community task force was authorized to lead the repair and restoration efforts.
Notable: Both dams were built in 1925 to generate electric power, but their licenses to do so were revoked in 2018 after years of alleged noncompliance with federal regulations and failure to meet safety standards.
Biggest challenge: The catastrophe highlighted the challenges facing dams across Michigan, many of which were constructed before 1900. Funding is a huge hurdle here and nationally, even for addressing the most serious deficiencies.
After the Edenville and Sanford dams failed, floodwaters from the Tittabawassee River inundated downtown Midland, Mich., in May 2020. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) Roads and bridges were swept away. Amazingly, no one was killed. (Photos by Digital Globe/Getty Images and Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)
New Jersey/New York
Hudson River Tunnel
Hudson River Tunnel, New Jersey/New York
Proposed in 2011 | $11.6 billion estimated cost
Work on the new tunnel — no start date has been set — and overhaul of the existing tunnel are expected to take about a decade.
Notable: The 2.4-mile Hudson River Tunnel will be built by boring a trench and lowering preconstructed, sealed segments of concrete tunnel into the water. Some sections could be as much as 250 feet deep.
Biggest challenge: Engineering plans and the construction calendar will have to account for submerged power lines, sewer lines, other infrastructure and even river traffic to avoid any delays or unexpected costs.
Frank Sacr worries about time. Every year, the leaks in the century-old North River Tunnel get worse. Chlorides from saltwater pushed in by Superstorm Sandy keep corroding the walls and wreaking havoc on the electrical system, causing signal problems that delay hundreds of thousands of daily commuters and travelers along the busy Northeast Corridor.
As acting chief financial officer of the Gateway Development Commission, it is Sacr’s job to worry about how much longer the tunnel’s two tubes will last. But he also worries about people. “How many parents miss school events, soccer games and time with the family, because they’re stuck under the Hudson River or in New Jersey trying to get home?” His voice sounds dismayed at the thought of all those wasted hours.
“This project has to happen,” he says.
Sacr and his team are racing against the existing tunnel’s decay. If one of the two current tracks must be closed for emergency repairs before another tunnel is built, delays caused by single-tracking would increase the collective regional commute by hundreds of thousands of hours each day and cost the U.S. economy $16 billion. The sooner the work can start, the faster it can go, and the more cost efficient it will be. Yet, despite the urgency, construction of a new tunnel has languished for years, stymied by financial negotiations and, more recently, by an uncooperative Trump administration.
With decades of banking experience under his belt and a friendly, lilting Australian accent, Sacr has become something of a money whisperer, capable of bringing public and private sectors together to structure, finance and procure “mega projects” — anything that comes with a $10 billion-plus price tag. He has worked on rails, roads and bridges around the world, but he says the Hudson Tunnel is already higher profile than any of his previous efforts — and the first bulldozer hasn’t even started up.
In his home office in Jersey City, Sacr spends most days virtually moving from meeting to meeting, leading conversations among Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and other big players, each with its own set of interests. Four years into his tenure at Gateway, financing is looking promising, though logistical challenges still threaten to torpedo carefully planned schedules and budgets.
Contractors today, unlike those who dug the original tunnel in 1910, have to contend with a maze of cable lines and water pipes. The land and underwater terrains switch from soil and clay to rock, and the risk of unexpected costs or delays runs high. Sacr’s job is to mitigate risks.
One of his strategies is to have the topography mapped out via soil samples. The project will rely on a virtual database of geotech borings with core samples dating to the original Pennsylvania Railroad construction in the early 1900s. That will help contractors know what to expect when they start digging — potentially as soon as 2023.
On May 28, Gateway’s environmental impact statement received federal approval after being stalled for three years by the previous administration. The milestone allowed preconstruction plans to finally move forward.
Sacr, 54, took a break to celebrate with his colleagues by raising a glass of sauvignon blanc in a toast to the team’s commitment. But time is of the essence, and the next day, he was back to work, “fighting the good fight.”
Story by Shoshana Akabas
Proposed in 1994 | Up to $100 billion estimated cost
The $22 billion Merced-to-Bakersfield stretch, now under construction, is projected to be ready for passenger service by 2030.
Travelers will be whisked from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours if California’s ambitious but controversial rail project ever comes to fruition. Supporters say the electrified bullet trains will cut greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 400,000 cars off the road every year.
Notable: This will be the first high-speed rail system in the United States. Countries such as Japan, China, France and Germany have long had high-speed rail.
Biggest challenge: Though voters approved the project in 2008, most Californians have never experienced high-speed rail and don’t necessarily see its potential. General support is waning as the price tag continues to climb and the timeline keeps extending.
Ironworkers in California's Central Valley construct the 2,000-foot Conejo Viaduct, which will be part of the nation's first high-speed rail system. About 119 miles of the project is now under construction. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Interstate 5/Rose Quarter
Interstate 5/Rose Quarter, Oregon
Proposed in 1987 | $1.1 billion to $1.2 billion estimated cost
Groundbreaking is projected for late 2023 and completion by 2030.
Notable: Hundreds of families in Portland’s Albina neighborhood, where most of the city’s Black residents once lived, were pushed out to make way for construction of this portion of the freeway in the 1960s.
Biggest challenge: Members of the Black community, local officials and others have backed the covered freeway option, but the state transportation department didn’t seem on board until the governor recently announced her support. The approach will create up to eight acres of developable land, allowing for a new community where the original freeway construction tore up the old.
“I am a child of the family that owned 1835 North Benton.”
For Sharon Gary-Smith, this is a declaration of identity, a point of pride, a reminder that infrastructure comes at a cost, and part of that cost is that families lose their homes. In Portland, much of the loss has been borne by the Black community. Through one project after another, the Albina neighborhood, its historic center, was fractured, overtaken, then left to deteriorate as the rest of the city hummed along.
Even decades later, Gary-Smith says, “the scars of people like me are still very real.”
In the 1940s, when Frederick and Bobbi Gary bought their tan, three-bedroom house on North Benton, redlining kept Black families from living anywhere but Albina. The neighborhood was a melting pot of teachers and pastors, shipyard workers and janitors, many of them White immigrants. Gary-Smith’s father worked for the Postal Service and then U.S. customs; her mother was a whip-smart homemaker. She and her three sisters took music and dance lessons, and sang in several choirs.
She was 13 in 1961 when she learned that her home was in the path of a new freeway that would run on the east side of the Willamette River, skirting the downtown core while plowing through the Black business district. Her parents understood the way the world worked — which is to say, when the government makes an offer for your place, hold out for more. Given Frederick Gary’s job, the family had the wherewithal to hang tight. They got $7,000 for their lot; others got far less. Neighbors scattered as 275 homes were razed. The remainder of the community struggled to stay connected.
Interstate 5 cuts through Portland, loosely paralleling the Willamette River. Gentrification and new construction now mark the neighborhoods just northeast of downtown.
Waves of “progress” hit Albina again and again. The freeway was followed in the early 1970s by a hospital expansion project — except that after several hundred families lost their houses through eminent domain, the hospital decided it was not going to expand. Properties increasingly were purchased by absentee landlords. The 1990s brought a plan to remedy “blight,” which cost yet more families their homes.
In a world where homeownership can be key to building wealth, Gary-Smith knows the financial toll will last generations.
And now the state transportation department wants to reconfigure that same stretch of I-5 through Albina, a section of which has been renamed the Rose Quarter entertainment district. Many Black residents have spent the past few years working to ensure that their voices will not just be heard but will influence the planning.
Some formed the Albina Vision Trust, a nonprofit that sees the project as an opportunity to restitch the neighborhood. They’re pushing state officials to build large “covers” over a section of the freeway that will allow development on top — park space, cultural offerings, retail and commercial opportunities, and potentially new housing.
Infrastructure is about more than just concrete, the trust argues; it’s about community.
Gary-Smith returned to Albina, where she lives across the street from a modest building that once served as Portland’s “Colored YWCA.” She spent much of her career in health advocacy and social justice philanthropy, and stays active on several fronts, including as president of the local NAACP.
When she walks her neighborhood — today a place dotted with high-end shops and high-rise apartments — this Black elder feels the eyes of Albina’s young, overwhelmingly White residents on her. She wonders if some are thinking, why are you here?
Sometimes, she admits, she feels like “a stranger in my own homeland.” Then she reflects further on all she’s done. “But I know this is mine.”
Story by Maureen O’Hagan
Photos by Mason Trinca
Calcasieu River Bridge
Proposed in 2013 (first public hearing) | $600 million to $800 million estimated cost
Construction is expected to start in 2023, with an advocacy group estimating completion as soon as 2026.
The narrow bridge that carries Interstate 10 traffic across the Calcasieu River in southwest Louisiana was built in 1952 with an expected life span of 50 years. Today it’s often called one of the country’s most dangerous bridges, and a public-private partnership is moving to demolish it, build a new one and charge tolls.
Notable: The current bridge handles more than 80,000 vehicles a day, at least double the traffic of 20 years ago. Its structural efficiency rating for how much load it can handle is 9.9 — out of 100.
Biggest challenge: The new bridge design has provoked grumbling from some locals who see the decades-old structure as an architectural symbol of the area. But the prospect of tolls hasn’t generated significant opposition.
President Biden chose the aging Calcasieu River Bridge in Lake Charles as a backdrop for pushing his multitrillion-dollar infrastructure plan this spring. (Alex Brandon/AP) The railing of the span features several thousand pairs of decorative crossed pistols. (Photos by Mark Felix for The Washington Post)
Ike Dike, Texas
Proposed in 2008 | Nearly $31 billion estimated cost
Federal environmental and feasibility studies are expected to be finished this year; 2023 is the earliest construction could begin.
Notable: The Netherlands built a similar series of hydraulic gates and walls to protect its coastline after a devastating 1953 storm in the North Sea killed 1,800 people.
Biggest challenge: Some environmentalists believe construction of the Ike Dike would alter the natural flow of Galveston Bay and threaten marine life. Some residents fear the project would lower property values by obscuring views of the Gulf of Mexico and hindering beach access.
Frank Billingsley has his eye on the proposed Ike Dike.
Nearly 13 years ago, the TV meteorologist spent two fearful weeks tracking the hurricane for which it is named. The storm formed in the Atlantic, gained steam in the Gulf of Mexico and then took dead aim at Galveston Island.
In the KPRC studio in Houston, he worried early on that viewers were ignoring Ike’s threat. Storm warnings along the coast and inland had become so routine that many residents weren’t taking them seriously.
Except Billingsley knew Ike was different.
“My real concern was that we already had Tropical Storm Edouard that year, and they evacuated Galveston. Then Edouard did nothing. It fell apart,” Billingsley remembers.
“Not much later, we have Ike, and a lot of complacency had set in. People were thinking ‘Edouard wasn’t much, Ike probably won’t be as bad as they’re saying.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s going to be worse than we’re saying. It’s going to be terrible.’ Three days out, we knew this was going to be our storm.”
The hurricane slammed into Galveston’s East End as a Category 2 system with 110-mile maximum sustained winds and a 22-foot storm surge. Famed city landmarks like Murdoch’s Pier and the Balinese Room were washed out to sea. Thirteen residents died.
The destruction that September seemed like history repeating itself. Turn back the calendar to September 1900. Galveston, then a high-rolling entertainment town, suffered the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history when a hurricane pushed eight to 12 feet of water across the island. At least 8,000 people perished; 7,000 buildings and homes were destroyed.
Barely a century later, Ike caused $30 billion in damage, making it the sixth-costliest hurricane to strike the U.S. mainland.
Just as the 1900 storm prompted Galveston to build a 10-mile-long sea wall, residents today are pushing for the Ike Dike. The massive undertaking would extend a barrier of protection along 70 miles of Galveston County coastline. Some of its gates would swing open and shut like Wild West saloon doors to prevent storm surges from entering the 52-mile-long Houston Ship Channel and threatening the second-largest petrochemical complex in the world — a critical component of U.S. national security.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott supports the project, as does the GOP-led legislature. As does Billingsley. He owns a home in Galveston just four blocks from the beach, a place where he retreats most weekends. At 61, he loves the pace and people. “They’re a little quirky, some of them. People that live on an island, it’s sort of like we’re all in this together.”
His house suffered relatively minor damage during Ike, the worst being three feet of water in his garage. Many neighbors were far less lucky.
With climate change only intensifying extreme weather everywhere, he sounds the alarm for his cherished island. He knows the Ike Dike “is not going to be perfect, but nothing’s perfect, nothing’s foolproof.”
Walking the sea wall on a sun-drenched weekend, Billingsley acknowledges how much the personal and professional intertwine here.
“It’s always gut-wrenching forecasting big storms, knowing what’s going to happen, especially when it’s your own community,” he says. “People are going to lose lives, property and the very fabric of their town.”
Story by Ken Hoffman
Photos by Mark Felix