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Fort Worth Mayor Price asks for public release of Panther Island review

What is Panther Island?

Panther Island is a $1.16 billion plan to re-route the Trinity River and redirect flood waters around the low-lying areas north of downtown. Here's what you should know.
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Panther Island is a $1.16 billion plan to re-route the Trinity River and redirect flood waters around the low-lying areas north of downtown. Here's what you should know.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price on Thursday called on the prompt release of an independent review of the $1.17 billion Panther Island project, saying an internal review of the study wasn’t necessary.

Riveron, a Dallas-based consulting firm, spent nearly three months digging into Trinity River Vision Authority documents and interviewing key staff. Its report and a presentation was expected to be made public Wednesday, but Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius, board president of the Trinity River Vision Authority, suggested the study not be released for about a month, arguing staff and board members needed time to digest it and ensure findings and recommendations were based on accurate data.

Price requested an independent analysis of the Trinity River project in October after reports the federal government would not provide needed funding in this fiscal year. In a statement to the Star-Telegram, she said she had expected the review to be made public Wednesday and an internal review was not part of the timeline presented when the authority contracted with Riveron in April.

“I called for this review because our residents, taxpayers and businesses demanded more transparency surrounding the Panther Island project,” she said. “This independent report is an opportunity to clear up concerns, alleviate frustration among residents and, most importantly, help provide a path forward for this critical project.”

Price said she received a copy of the report Thursday afternoon and had not yet read it. The roughly 90-page document relied on dozens of interviews and hundreds of project documents.

Maenius told reporters Wednesday the delay was not a “stall tactic” but a genuine effort to ensure the final product was correct. He called the recommendations and findings “substantial” and encouraged board members to return comments or questions about the report to Riveron as soon as possible.

“They’re not simply going to change something because someone wanted it changed,” he said. “We don’t want anyone to look at this report and say ‘That’s wrong, so the report’s wrong.’”

The Army Corps of Engineer’s Central City Project, often called the Panther Island project, requires the Corps to cut a bypass channel in the Trinity River north of downtown, forming a roughly 800-acre island.

The channel is part of a flood control effort aimed at protecting about 2,400 acres while allowing some of the city’s levees to come down. The project received roughly $60 million under previous administrations. Congress approved $526 million for it in 2016. That money is expected to be doled out over several years but wasn’t included in the last two federal budgets.

Riveron was selected in April to study the project’s finances, management and structure at a cost not to exceed $460,000. So far the authority has paid $150,000.

One person close to the project who had reviewed parts of the report told the Star-Telegram that Riveron recommended “substantial management changes.”

The report contains a recommendation that real estate and economic development on the island be the responsibility of a nonprofit under the city and not fall under J.D. Granger, the son of Congresswoman Kay Granger, or Jim Oliver, Tarrant Regional Water District manager, according to a report from KXAS/Channel 5. The station said they obtained a copy of the report from a government official.

James Hill, a Tarrant Regional Water District board member, Fort Worth Councilman Carlos Flores and city manager David Cooke advocated during the meeting for a timely release of the report as well as a presentation from Riveron, which the said they expected with the report’s release. All three said they understood the need to double check facts, but doubted a full month was necessary.

Flores said the presentation was vital to understanding the consultant’s methods and findings. He said he understood the need for a “sanity test” to make sure the report was factually accurate but he didn’t believe that was mutually exclusive from releasing the document and having a public discussion about it.

“In general we’ve reached a point in time where I think it should be released,” he told the Star-Telegram Thursday. “I think having that conversation publicly is not a bad thing.”

Hill agreed, saying he was disappointed the board had little to show the public. He was concerned allowing corrections to be made in secret would give the impression the independent review had lost its objectivity.

“The point should be to correct facts, if necessary, not change the findings,” he said. “This report was intended to have someone else give us their opinion and not have anyone say ‘Well I don’t like this. Change it.’”

He added that he hoped the final report would done quickly.

Oliver and J.D. Granger justified the delay. Granger, in the meeting, said he feared releasing the study would lead to reports from specifically the Star-Telegram and KXAS/Channel 5 that he said would be inaccurate.

Oliver told the board that other members likely did not understand the project and only he, Granger and other water district staffers would be able to properly vet the study’s accuracy.

“We’re the ones who know the nuts and bolts of this project,” he told the board. “You all can look at it but you don’t know the day-to-day operations of this organization and how it works.”

Leah King, a Tarrant Regional Water District board member, said she received a copy late Thursday afternoon but had not read it. While she wasn’t concerned major changes would be made to the report, she expressed disappointment the study was not immediately made public.

“I understand there’s a customary practice of review, but that was not a part of the original time frame,” she said. “There was a commitment made to the public and all of us.”

In June, Riveron representative Kevin Ruiz gave the board an overview to that point.

He said the study had found no malfeasance or signs of wrongdoing. However, Riveron had roughly a dozen key findings from which it would make recommendations.

Riveron’s findings will indicate the authority lacks a robust contingency plan, likely because it is set up as a coordinating body, not a management body, he said. Ruiz said in June “substantial room for improvement” existed with the authority’s management and transparency.

He also said the report would show the need for new messaging.

Originally conceived as a flood control effort, much of the attention has been centered on how a bypass channel would create an 800-acre island downtown poised for development. Ruiz said the authority needed to return to a focus on “flood control and public safety” in branding.

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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 lranker@star-telegram.com.
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