Regional News

Texas Bond Funds Spent to Keep Historic Battleship Afloat

DALLAS — Texas will use the balance of $25 million of state general obligation bonds earmarked for long-term preservation of the historic Battleship Texas on emergency repairs to keep the 100-year-old dreadnought from sinking into the mud.

Texas voters approved the GO bonds in November 2007 as part of the Proposition 4 that authorized a $1 billion bond program for state facilities. The measure passed with 58% of voters in favor. Proposition 4 was among $10 billion of state GO bonds approved in that election.

The intention at the time was to move the floating museum, now moored in brackish water along the Houston Ship Channel in LaPorte, into a permanent dry dock facility. The ship would be out of the water entirely, with the hull supported on large blocks. Taking the old ship out of the corrosive salty water environment would preserve the relic of two world wars for the benefit of future generations, Texas Parks and Wildlife officials said.

But all the millions have been spent to keep the ship afloat until it can be preserved, its condition scientifically assessed, and options studied for a large dry dock at the San Jacinto Battleground near Houston, where Battleship Texas has been berthed since 1948.

A $17.5 million contract to repair the deteriorating hull bottom was awarded by the state on March 12 to Taylor Marine Construction  Inc.

The hull repair effort, which is the first extensive structural upgrade in more than 20 years, will expend the remaining bond proceeds. It will accomplish about 50% of the work needed to prepare the ship for dry docking.

Neil Thomas, project director for the repair effort, said the repairs are needed quickly whether the ultimate solution is dry docking or keeping the battleship at its current floating berth.

“We’ve identified a suite of the most critical repairs, and these are needed whether the ship is dry or wet,” Thomas said.

More than 150,000 visitors a year board the ship, which has been designated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark.

In 2012 the Legislative Budget Board approved the use of the proceeds that had been earmarked to the dry dock for the repair efforts. The triple-A bonds were issued by the Texas Public Finance Authority.

The repair contract was signed on the 99th anniversary of the Battleship Texas’ service entry. The ship, designed by the Navy as BB 35, was launched May 18, 1912, in Newport News, Va., and commissioned March 12, 1914. The Texas is the last surviving battleship of the Dreadnought class anywhere in the world, and one of the few U.S. Navy ships to have served in both World War I and World War II.

The Texas served as a convoy escort to U.S. troop ships to Europe in the earlier conflict, and in World War II its array of 10 14-in guns provided fire support for the invasions of North Africa, Normandy, southern France, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

The project to repair aft areas and portions of the hull and support structures beneath the two engines will begin in April and be completed within 18 months. Without the repairs, ship engineers said, the heavy engines could crash through the weak hull.

Repair will consist of replacing portions of the vessel’s deteriorated hull and support structures beneath the ship’s twin engines, each of which weighs more than 1,100 tons, and the aft fuel tanks.

The engines are sitting on frames that are 90% disintegrated, and the frames supporting boilers, steering gear, and an emergency generator must also be replaced.

The $17.5 million repair effort will accomplish the most critical repairs, Thomas said, but at least that much more is needed to bring the veteran battleship to an acceptable condition.

“The ultimate goal is still to develop the dry-berth option, but that is all based on the funding that is available,” he said. “With the completion of this project, we will have expended all the funds allocated to the ship.”

No decision has been made on how the dry-dock effort will be funded, whether from state allocations or private donations, Thomas said, but preserving the Texas in ship-shape is a continuing expense.

“We’ve tapped out the dollars we have available,” he said. “If we get more money, we can do more repairs. We can certainly spend the money.”

Trustees of the Battleship Texas Foundation are expected to decide this summer on a fundraising campaign to seek contributions to the dry-dock project. The group has raised $4 million to match the state’s $25 million allocation.

Keeping a century-old ship afloat is a challenge, Thomas said.

“There’s always going to be ongoing maintenance on a 100-year-old mechanical system,” he said. “Steel ships are built watertight so they can float on the water, but that means if you get water into them, they are a bath tub.”

Moving the Texas into a dry berth would take it out of the brackish water that eats away at the steel and would also allow better access to the hull area for repairs, Thomas said. At times, he added, the ship is resting softly on the muddy bottom in its current berth.

“We call it soft contact, and it varies depending on the tide and the silt buildup,” he said. “The ship is sometimes floating and sometimes on the mud, but it is not hard contact.”

The dry berth was proposed as a solution to periodic repairs that have required moving the ship to a repair facility every 10 years. The last effort in 1989 cost $15 million, and the state funding covered only 30% of the repairs deemed necessary.

Fears that the old ship could not stand another towing were confirmed by outside experts Proceanic in 2008 and AECOMM in 2011. Both strongly recommended against towing the Texas any significant distance.

The latest price tag for dredging and installing a dry dock at the San Jacinto Battleground is $75 million, but the ultimate cost will be determined by which of the four current berthing options is selected, as well as market factors.

“It depends on when the berthing project begins, and the price of steel at the time,” he said. “But the longer the wait, the more expensive it will be.”

None of the work for which there is funding will preclude the dry docking of the Battleship Texas, Thomas said.

The ship almost sank at its berth in June 2009 as large, undetected leaks in the hull admitted massive volumes of seawater.

The situation was discovered when the park staff noticed that the ship was two feet lower in the water than it should be. A major leak near the waterline on the starboard side was plugged with a rag by a diver until a more permanent patch could be installed and the water could be pumped out.

The ship was closed to visitors for a week in June 2012 after a leak that let in an estimated 850 gallons each minute created a 2-degree list to port. The ship was stabilized with repairs that reduced the inflow to less than 100 gallons per minute and additional pumps were installed.

The 2009 repairs cost more than $1 million, with another $3 million spent to recover from the 2012 incident.




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