When U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced early this month it was halting an expected $33.5 million payment toward its share of the Trinity River Vision project in Fort Worth, local officials said it was because the money had been spent elsewhere due to severe storms in the last two years.
The Corps, though, said the money was halted because of a missing analysis on economic benefits of the $1.16 billion project, a review that should have been completed long ago.
A review by The Texas Monitor of emails and internal reports shows that officials at the Trinity River Vision Authority, or TRVA, have known since 2010 that the Corps of Engineers would require such a study, and has been fighting it ever since.
Requiring such an analysis, one TRVA consultant wrote, would be “devastating” to the ambitious project to redevelop a swath of land adjacent to downtown Fort Worth.
Most recently, TRVA consultant Fred Caver panicked in late 2016 when federal lawmakers introduced a spending bill provision requiring a cost analysis on the project that would use $526 million in federal funds.
“We need to make double sure the House doesn’t roll on this,” Caver wrote to J.D. Granger, head of the Trinity River Vision Authority, or TRVA.
The provision, part of a water spending bill that would fund almost half the TRVA development, threatened to kill the project. “It has to be changed before enactment,” Caver wrote. “As written this would be devastating.”
The message was forwarded to J.D.’s mother, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, who led the effort to secure the money from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“We are all over it and will make sure the House conferees know this is a deal killer,” came the response from Kay Granger staffer Johnnie Kaberle.
She later wrote to J.D., asking if he would agree to limiting “recreational features” spending in the project to $5.5 million.
Her gut feeling, she said, was that if that could be done, the “bad language” requiring an economic impact study could be successfully removed.
“Running this down now,” J.D. Granger came back.
The Grangers and their allies did manage to get the requirement for the cost-benefit analysis — required on almost all Corps projects — removed from the 2016 spending bill. But two years and millions of dollars in spending later, that same question has come back to haunt the Fort Worth project.
The matter of how the Army Corps money is to be spent has now resulted in a halt on federal funding for the Panther Island project, which would turn areas near downtown into a mixed-use haven of parks, sports fields, condos and retail while, the TRVA says, bolstering the city’s defenses against flooding.
The project has already begun, with three bridges being built over dry land at a cost of $100 million with the expectation 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.
Most of that work has been funded by a combination of local and state money and around $61 million from the Corps of Engineers, part of the $526 million that did get approved, to be spent over the course of the project.
Emails show that while the effort to fund Panther Island was led in Washington by Kay Granger, her office used J.D. and other TRVA employees to write letters on behalf of the Congresswoman’s office in support of various moves.
Kay Granger’s staffers and TRVA officials struggled to maneuver around the cost analysis, a requirement to show that Army Corps money is being appropriately spent for flood and water control.
The amendment was written by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who suggested that the Panther Island money wasn’t going for water issues but instead was being used to help build recreational facilities.
The amendment prompted a letter from the TRVA. The letter, addressed to Kay Granger and U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, also a supporter of the project, was to be distributed to Granger’s political allies in the House.
“To the extent there are recreation facilities included in the federal project, they fall into the traditional Corps categories of water-based recreation, including trails and boat ramps,” a first draft of the letter read. “Any other recreation features, such as those described above, would be constructed by various non-federal entities at 100% local cost.”
The version sent, though, made no such promises. Instead, it contended that flood control work would disturb stretches of land and that federal money could properly be spent to remediate the damage.
Emails also show that the TRVA knew of the compliance problem eight years ago, long before DeFazio crusaded against the spending.
“From early 2010 on the ‘not policy compliant’ has come up on both the Authorization front and the Appropriations front…” according to a 2015 TRVA report, echoing the finding of a 2013 Army Corps assessment.
The author of the TRVA report suggested that the federal government would not want to insist on the analysis at that point because it would be “confusing.”
“Why would [the feds] direct federal money towards a project it does not deem compliant? “the report asked. “It would be confusing now to state not compliant and incorrect to have given the project monies.”
The agency was told by federal officials that the TRVA’s commissioned study, which focused on the economic development potential of the project rather than the flood control elements, was not sufficient. But the TRVA officials insisted that a 2014 overhaul of the cost analysis report statute allowed it to continue without any more research.
“The cost benefit analysis is no longer required … and therefore requiring such is incorrect,” the TRVA report reads.
Communications from the TRVA and Kay Granger’s office also show careful attention to public perception and selling the project, from carefully crafted public remarks at events to tactical approaches to addressing the public/media when speaking about the TRVA project.
When a student journalist from Texas Christian University approached TRVA spokesman Matt Oliver for an interview with Kay Granger, he was handed over to Matt Leffingwell, then Kay Granger’s communications person.
Oliver feared the student would write something negative.
After talking with the student, Leffingwell wrote Oliver, “I did some minor bullying and I think he is harmless.”
The Texas Monitor placed nine calls for this story, including messages to Kay Granger, her staff, the TRVA, vendors, consultants mentioned in this story, a co-author of the UNT economic development study, and the office of U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey. None of the calls were returned.
The Texas Department of Transportation was also silent. Officials of the state agency, which funded a percentage of the infrastructure on the project, including a city-owned bridge, did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].