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Voters OK plan to spend $250 million in bonds on Panther Island

Panther Island project rendering.
Panther Island project rendering. Tarrant Regional Water District

Tarrant voters easily approved a $250 million bond package to move forward Panther Island, the long-proposed river walk project planned north of downtown, late Saturday.

The Trinity River Vision project — which would include rechanneling the Trinity River north of downtown to create an 800-acre island — drew more than 66 percent approval with all precincts reporting, according to unofficial Tarrant County election results.

"This is very important. It's going to allow us to complete the project, keep it online and on track," said Jim Oliver, the water district general manager. "It's a great thing."

This bond proposal specifically called for issuing $250 million in bonds for "flood control and drainage facilities" and didn't mention Panther Island by name.

It is geared to generate needed dollars to finish the more than decade-long flood control project, which includes buying needed land, rechanneling 1.5 miles of the Trinity River and building needed water storage areas and flood gates.

Ultimately, Panther Island is expected to include new bridges and a town lake, something leaders have long said will transform the area north of downtown and turn it into something that could rival San Antonio's riverwalk.

Critics have watched as the project has grown in size and cost through the years, beginning with a projected price tag of around $360 million more than a decade ago.

It now is anticipated to cost more than $1.1 billion.

Costs have escalated for many reasons, including new federal rules regarding levee construction that were developed after Hurricane Katrina.

The Tarrant Regional Water District is overseeing the Panther Island project along with the Trinity River Vision Authority. The district is working on the project, planned to be finished by 2028, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

This project has been called "the largest, most expensive boondoggle in Texas," by Empower Texans, an influential conservative group that has worked for years to move the Texas Legislature to the right.

"Tarrant County, the City of Fort Worth, and the TRWD have refused to disclose where the TRV has spent hundreds of millions in taxpayer money," the group recently wrote in an article. "No governing body has ever called for a forensic audit to find out, and they won’t unless Tarrant County taxpayers demand it."

Some worry that funding projections, particularly for the special tax district that will house Panther Island, will not generate as much money as believed and ultimately leave the water district without enough money to pay back the bonds.

Supporters say the projections are on the money and a safe way to repay the bonds.

The TRWD has predicted that property tax revenue will generate more than $770 million over the next 26 years, which could easily cover bond costs and more.

Without this bond program, water district officials might have had to raise the tax rate by about 8 cents to raise the levees.

"This has now gone to a public vote and it has gotten support," Oliver said. "This shows the public supports the flood control project."

This article includes information from Star-Telegram archives.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley
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