“In the three years I’ve been affiliated with this group, we’ve received no funding,” James Hill, board member of the Trinity River Vision Authority (TRVA) said of the controversial Panther Island project at a board meeting on September 2.
“When do we come up with a Plan B? How long do we wait?”
The Panther Island, Central City Flood Control project in downtown Fort Worth continues to languish with no federal funding and no expectation of when it will come.
According to Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) general manager Jim Oliver, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the federal agency that is working with local entities to complete the project, authorized $1.5 million in funding to TRVA in February for a feasibility study. TRVA had requested $38 million continued progress on the project.
However, Mark Mazzanti, a consultant on the project, advised the TRVA board to decline the funding because he believed the study was unnecessary, and would also require that TRWD provide $1.5 million in matching funds.
Oliver reported that Clay Church at the Fort Worth District USACE office communicated to him that the Panther Island project is eligible and being considered for funding and that there is no requirement for additional studies.
In an effort to clarify the board’s position, Fort Worth City Manager and TRVA board member David Cooke proposed adopting a statement that “[w]e believe no further study or recommendation is necessary or appropriate given that there is already an authorized construction project underway. This project is authorized and modified by the Congress and signed into law by the President. This authorized project can not simply be waved away or dismissed. Therefore, the proposed new feasibility study for the same authorized project and studying the same problems…is not only inefficient but inappropriate and unnecessary.”
Most board members agreed with the sentiment and asked Mazzanti to draft a letter to that effect for the board to consider at its October meeting.
The North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) Regional Transportation Council is intervening also by drafting a letter to the USACE to “advance previously understood responsibilities about a project in Fort Worth, Texas.”
NCTCOG has contributed nearly $90 million to the construction of bridges over the bypass channel.
The letter emphasizes that the channel was accepted and approved in May 2008 by the Army of Civil Works and that in 2016, Congress authorized $526.5 million for the project.
“Please advance funding for the completion of design and expedite remaining construction of the ‘Modified Central City Project’ as soon as possible,” the group requested in the letter.
Mazzanti and other TRVA board members speculated at the recent meeting that they don’t expect any appropriations bills to pass this fall due to upcoming elections, suggesting that Congress is likely to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government and not deal with specific appropriations until early next year.
The Texas Department of Transportation reported recently that one of the three bridges they are building as part of the project — the White Settlement bridge — will be completed by December, while the other two bridges will be completed next year.
Without federal funding, the bypass channel, or canal, over which the bridges pass will be dry, and the bridges are likely to provide no serviceable function for years to come.
Meanwhile, TRVA is funding current operations, like basic administration costs and some environmental clean-up and demolition work from the $6 million in tax-increment finance district funding it received in July, TRWD chief financial officer Sandy Newby told The Texan. She expects that funding to last through the fall after which TRVA will draw its funding from issuing commercial paper, a short term debt instrument.
Mazzanti pointed out that TRVA is maintaining functions at a level that keeps them “eligible for federal funding.” Environmental clean-up work has been ongoing.
In 2019, the Panther Island project was reviewed by a third-party advisory firm, Riveron. The report cited myriad problems within the project’s financial management, governance, and transparency and recommended significant changes.
Original cost estimates in 2006 for the project was $435 million. Riveron now estimates the project will likely cost nearly $1.2 billion to complete — roughly three times the original estimates.
So far, local entities have contributed over $265 million to the project while the state and federal governments have added about $60 million.
“What do we need to do to not just be eligible for funding, but to receive funding?” Hill asked.
UPDATE: This piece has been updated with comment from a Tarrant Regional Water District representative.
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Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.