Fort Worth may not be just a “pass through” for Trinity River project funding much longer

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After failing to comply with federal standards for funding, the City of Fort Worth will reevaluate its participation in the $1.16 billion Trinity River development project, now called Panther Island.

The city’s change in attitude stemmed from the news that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had dropped Panther Island from its list of funded projects for 2019. Corps spokespersons attributed that to the lack of an economic analysis on the project that the city and Trinity River Vision Authority have known about – and fought – for years.

Now, some are questioning the status of $250 million in bond authority approved by local voters in May, to help pay for cost overruns and replace revenue that planners had expected to be provided by natural gas income.

The status of that bond authority is unclear, since the additional tax revenue the project was expected to generate to repay the bonds now appears to be in doubt.

“The city sees that it doesn’t have the development that it thought it would there,” said Steve Hollern, a certified public accountant and longtime critic of the plan.  Without enough new tax dollars from development along the river, he said, “the public would be on the hook for the bonds, after being promised that this project would not incur a tax increase.”

A document prepared by management of the Trinity River Vision Authority in advance of the bond proposal, which was approved by 60 percent of voters, showed that the TRVA looked to the city to cover several major holes that had developed in the project funding scheme:

  • an $87 million shortfall in revenue from a special tax district created for the project,
  • $95 million in costs that the Corps of Engineers had been expected to pay for but had “shifted” to local partners,
  • $29 million in something called “newly requested interior development considerations,”
  • $37 million in cost increases and items that “should have been included” in earlier estimates.

Looking to the city to solve the project’s funding problems is in line with expectations that local and state officials have been expressing for years.

The city has been closely involved as a partner on the project, most closely on the three bridges that are being built. But the TRVA considers the city simply a “pass through” for money going toward the project, according to emails obtained by Texas Monitor.

J.D. Granger wrote in a 2012 email he sent to his mother, U.S Rep. Kay Granger; an engineer at the Texas Department of Transportation; and TxDOT Commissioner Bill Meadows that the city was simply a compliant party carrying out directions.

“The city is executing the bridge effort at the direction of TRVA,” he wrote. “TRVA coordinates every partner’s efforts. TRVA manages all the local money. Technically the city has entered into an agreement with TxDOT, but the TRVA blessed the agreement and finances the city’s obligations.”

Meadows, in an email around the same time, promised Kay Granger that while one of the project’s bridges did not comply with state funding criteria, “TXDOT will build [that] bridge, even though it is a city bridge and not on the state system.”

Meadows did not return a call from Texas Monitor.

The bridges, with a cost of $65.5 million, are funded with a combination of federal and regional funds. TxDOT communications staffers declined to be interviewed for this story.

“TxDOT’s role is limited to overseeing the construction of the three bridges,” spokesman Val Lopez said in an email.

“This type of thing is so typical…” said former state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth. “It’s sweetheart dealing and while I don’t know if it’s against the law, it’s certainly against normal operating procedures.”

With Mayor Betsy Price calling for an audit of the project, Panther Island’s future is in doubt for the first time since its conception in 2003. The three bridges are already under construction and due to be completed in 2020. Several developers, banking on the project’s progress, are working on apartment buildings.

Local, state, and federal officials are all reluctant to talk about the project. J.D. Granger did not return a call seeking comment for this story. Neither did Fort Worth spokeswoman Michelle Gutt. Corps of Engineers officials did not respond last week to requests from The Texas Monitor for comments on the controversies surrounding Panther Island.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

See previous coverage of the Trinity River issue below:

Questions about missing analysis now loom large for Fort Worth river project

River agency knew for years about the need for an economic analysis of its project — and fought it

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