DFW Airport board chairman says Fort Worth’s river project needs to be rethought

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As the Tarrant Regional Water District board voted to proceed with a reevaluation of the $1.16 billion Trinity River development project, the chairman of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport board of directors said the lack of funding and the questions being raised show that a new vision for the project is needed.

“If funding is going to be a challenge, you have to look at alternatives,” said Bill Meadows, who as a Texas Department of Transportation commissioner in 2012 helped the Trinity River Vision Authority — an offshoot of the water district — and Fort Worth secure funding for three bridges that are part of the project, now called Panther Island.

“Now, you have to look at a different scope of delivery, phasing — you have to look at all these angles,” he said in an interview with The Texas Monitor.

He noted that city officials have now called for an audit of the project, which Meadows said would likely be an operational review, as opposed to forensic. The latter connotes a suspicion of malfeasance.

“That [an operational audit] is not something I suspect [the Trinity River Vision Authority] would resist,” he said.

The city and the water district are questioning the future of the Panther Island project after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dropped it from the list of funded projects for 2019. A Corps spokesman in Washington attributed that move to the absence of an economic analysis, something that the city and TRVA have fought for years.

Critics contend the project is as much about economic development as it is about flood control: it calls for a mixed-use development of parks, sports fields, businesses and residences and rechanneling part of the river. But the federal money – which represents nearly half the cost of the project – can only be used for flood and water control.

Three bridges are being built over dry land at a cost of $100 million, using federal and regional funds, according to TxDOT. The expectation is that the federal funding will be used to realign the Trinity to flow beneath.  Developers have begun construction on apartments and road work has already impaired traffic flow in the area. The project has been funded so far by grants and loans, including $81 million in federal money, as the cost has risen from $110 million to the current $1.16 billion.

Water district General Manager Jim Oliver this week spent 15 minutes during the district’s specially called board meeting advising the board that “misconceptions” are clouding the aim of the project.

He said the idea that Panther Island is an economic development project is wrong.

“All the money, the federal and the state money, is going to the bypass channel … it is 100 percent flood control,” Oliver said. “There is some recreation in it as part of the project — mainly there’s lighting on the bypass channel, which is like on the river and trails and pedestrian bridges. … None of that is going to economic development.”

He added that cleaning up the area and putting in the flood control would stimulate economic development as a “byproduct.”

Oliver did not respond to an email seeking an interview.

In his presentation, Oliver quoted Clay Church, from the Fort Worth district of the Corps of Engineers, saying the money has been appropriated and there is no need for a financial analysis, contradicting a statement from a Corps spokesman in Washington, said the project could not get federal funds this time around “because of the lack of an economic analysis.”

Church has provided several statements promoting the water district and the TRVA. He declined an interview request, citing a new policy.

“We do interviews except on this project with all the media coverage,” Church said. “Now we’re doing everything in writing.”

Church acknowledged in an email to The Texas Monitor that authorization carries no actual funding. In order to accomplish what has been authorized, funds must also be approved through the appropriation process, he said.

Money in Washington is often authorized for projects that benefit the home districts of lawmakers.

But being authorized and appropriated “are two different things,” said Steve Hollern, a certified public accountant who has been among the local critics of the Panther Island plan. Both parts of the process have to be completed before funds become available.

“You can’t spend authorized money,” Hollern said. He pointed to the Super Collider project approved by Congress in the late 80s, which would have brought up to 8,000 jobs to Ellis County. After spending $2 billion, Congress pulled the plug as costs escalated.

Then there was the federal Securities and Exchange Commission’s decision in 2010 to lease new office space after Congress authorized a doubling of its budget but did not appropriate the money.  The SEC had to make good on the lease but never recouped the loss. The agency’s inspector general called the move adeeply flawed and unsound analysis.”

Emails and documents obtained by The Texas Monitor include a “federal ask schedule” for the $526 million authorized by Congress last year. The amounts vary from $35 million this year to $64 million in 2026.

“We will know a lot more in a few years how the end of the project will be phased,” TRVA Executive Director J.D. Granger told his mother, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger (R-Fort Worth), in a July 2016 email.

Kay Granger was key to securing the authorization of the federal money. The money was disputed during congressional bargaining as some detractors contended the money was being spent on an economic development project.

The Fort Worth City Council last week voted to reconsider its participation in the Panther Island project and will seek to have an audit performed. The council met yesterday and the subject was not on its agenda.

In emails obtained by Texas Monitor, officials at the TRVA said the city is a “pass through” for federal funds, downplaying the city’s importance and input in the project.

However, local officials have protected the project tenaciously in recent years, launching well-funded efforts to oppose water board candidates who questioned the wisdom of Panther Island and support those who were friendly to the project.

In 2015, former Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief created a political action committee, Our Water, Our Future, for that purpose. The PAC is chaired by Wes Turner, former executive editor of the local newspaper, according to its most recent federal tax filing, and spent $210,000 on the campaigns of water board candidates in 2016.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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