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What’s going on with Panther Island? Fort Worth readers have questions

The Star-Telegram’s recent report at how engineers believe the $1.17 billion Panther Island project in Fort Worth will accomplish flood control prompted many questions from readers. A number of them touched on the same issues:

How much has been spent by the federal and local partners so far?

According to the Trinity River Vision Authority’s December financial report, a little more than $324 million has been spent by local taxpayers, mainly city of Fort Worth residents and those who live in the Tarrant Regional Water District, which oversees the project. This includes more then $88 million for land acquisition, $34 million for the local share of the bridge work and $33 million for environmental cleanup, which can only be done by a governmental entity like TRWD.

The federal government has given the project just under $63 million as of December. Most of that money, about $36.3 million, has gone to construction of the overflow basins in Gateway Park. Not quite $19.5 million has been spent on bypass channel-related work.

Though as much as $40 million worth of work could be accomplished in 2019, Panther Island has about $9 million for the federal flood control component. TRWD officials have said they need at least $26 million in 2020 to stay on schedule. An additional $35 million would be needed in 2021.

How has this cost changed over time?

More than a decade ago the project was priced around $360 million but is now closer to $1.17 billion. In short, costs have escalated for many reasons, including inflation, new federal rules regarding construction that were developed after Hurricane Katrina and changes to the project’s design.

What’s going on with this bond money?

Last spring voters approved $250 million in bonds. The proposal called for “flood control and drainage facilities” and didn’t mention Panther Island by name. That money would be used for infrastructure, including portions of the flood control project the federal government is not paying for, like storm water drainage on the island.

As an alternative to the Trinity River bypass channel, the Corps identified two of the city’s 12 levees that could be raised at a cost of about $10 million. Where are those levees?

These levees protect the Cultural District and the area just north of downtown off North Main, essentially where Panther Island would be.

Why did the Corps not proceed with that plan?

The Corps rejected the idea because raising only two levees left the remaining portions of the city vulnerable to the standard project flood and ultimately had a negative cost to benefit ratio, TRWD engineer Woody Frossard said. Carnegie Mellon University Dave Dzombak said levees of varying heights can have negative impacts for a city, exacerbating flooding.

What’s the deal with those bridges?

Three bridges are currently being built over dry land — N. Main Street, Henderson Street and White Settlement Road. The work is managed by Texas Department of Transportation with the city of Fort Worth as the local partner. Designers believe it is cheaper and easier to build the bridges over dry land rather than construct them after the channel is cut. The bypass channel cannot move forward until the bridges are done, planners have said.

The completion date for the bridges has moved several times, and was first delayed a few years to sometime in 2019 because of design work. Now, the likely end dates are between 2020 and 2021.

The White Settlement Road bridge, furthest along in construction, should be ready for traffic by late summer 2020, a TxDot official said in January. North Main Street will be done in February 2021 and Henderson Road will follow in the spring of 2021.

At a February TRWD meeting, state officials said these dates could change as they look into the contractor’s progress.

Wasn’t there supposed to be an audit or independent review?

The term “audit” implies a financial review of the Panther Island project. Fort Worth leaders called for an independent look at many parts of the project, including management, finances and alternative funding sources. TRWD, through the Trinity River Vision Authority, put out a request for nationally recognized firms to bid on what they call a “programmatic review.”

Only one firm submitted a bid, which county administrator and Trinity River Vision Authority board president G.K. Maenius said had a higher cost than expected. That board is currently mulling options.

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or
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