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How a split between Rep. Kay Granger and her son changed Panther Island forever

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For more than a decade, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger and her son, J.D. Granger, have worked on Panther Island, an ambitious $1.16 billion project that includes re-routing the Trinity River north of downtown Fort Worth.

But they haven’t always seen eye-to-eye.

A key moment in their separate but parallel efforts to build the massive flood control and economic development project — which would feature a mix of high-end housing, restaurants and other attractions in the city’s north side — occurred in 2012, a Star-Telegram review of emails shows.

At the time, those working on the Panther Island project were trying to figure out how to build three bridges connecting the new island to the city’s downtown.

Kay Granger, the longtime Republican congresswoman from Fort Worth, wanted to accept an offer from the Texas Department of Transportation to build the three bridges just like Fort Worth’s West Seventh Street bridge, which features bold, lighted arches. The transportation department pledged to do all the design and construction in-house, get the work done by 2016 and cover any cost overruns beyond the original $72.5 million estimate.

The bridges at North Main Street, Henderson Street and White Settlement Road were to be built over dry land, to save time and money. Once the bridge work was complete, the Trinity River would then be re-channeled through north Fort Worth and routed under the structures.

The result would be a quicker end to the traffic jams caused by construction on those streets. Also, having the bridges complete might speed up the effort to secure $580 million in federal funding to re-channel the river. And, it would provide an incentive for private investors to pour their money into development of the area.

But J.D. Granger — who as executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority bears ultimate responsibility for the Panther Island flood control and economic development project — disagreed with the proposal to use the West Seventh Street bridge design. Instead, he wanted to keep the bridges’ original design, which calls for flat-top structures with V-shaped piers — a design that he and others felt would focus more attention on the underside of the bridges, which was important because the bridges would serve to create a river-walk atmosphere along the Trinity River banks.

The difference of opinion displayed in the emails provide a fresh glimpse into the project, which drew headlines earlier this month after the Star-Telegram determined that funding for the project was left out of the 2018 and 2019 federal budgets. The emails were provided to the Star-Telegram by a source who asked not to be identified.

Officials at the Trinity River Vision Authority and its parent agency, the Tarrant Regional Water District, have maintained that they are still on schedule to have the project completed by 2028, potentially opening more than 300 acres of prime island real estate near downtown Fort Worth for high-end residential and commercial development.

Completion of the bridges, although not germane to the Trinity River Vision Authority’s quest for federal flood control money, is considered essential because private-sector developers are hesitant to invest in property with questionable access.

Details of the emails

For the congresswoman, the offer by the state transportation department to take responsibility for the design and construction of the three bridges was a way to ensure they were properly funded and completed on schedule. The transportation department’s Fort Worth district engineer, Maribel Chavez, confirmed in a Dec. 10, 2012, email to both Grangers and local, state and federal officials that the work on all three bridges could be completed by 2016.

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Congresswoman Kay Granger speaks to the Star-Telegram editorial board Wednesday, July 5, 2017. David Kent dkent@star-telegram.com

In her email, Chavez explained that her agency could build the three Panther Island bridges (although the name “Panther Island” wasn’t yet commonly used to refer to the project) just like the West Seventh Street bridge, which was earning accolades for the agency’s in-house, low-cost design.

In the emails, Chavez agrees that the transportation department would cover any construction costs exceeding $72.5 million, providing cost-certainty for the Trinity River Vision Authority.

Kay Granger wrote in an email to Chavez, her son and other officials that the Trinity River Vision Authority project “has great momentum right now due to JD’s efforts and the expected immediate start of the Henderson Bridge effort; however, if the above is being offered with the terms above TRVA should consider it.”

But the next day, on Dec. 11, 2012, J.D. Granger wrote an email to his mother and the other officials were expressing concern about allowing the state transportation department to redesign the bridges.

“First, is the offer worthy of consideration? I only say this for all to understand why TRVA is trying to be very careful how we approach the Corps. In the Corps’ mind the bridges were a done deal and about to start,” he wrote. “Further, the Corps loves the current bridges.”

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J.D. Granger after the groundbreaking on Henderson Street at the official kick off of construction of the Panther Island Bridges being built on Henderson Street, North Main Street and White Settlement in Fort Worth, TX, Monday, Nov. 10, 2014. The ceremony included remarks by Congresswoman Kay Granger, Texas Department of Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. The Panther Island Bridges feature a signature V-pier structure and were designed by renowned architect Miguel Rosales and local engineering firm Freese and Nichols, Inc. Construction of all three bridges will occur simultaneously and will take about three years to construct. The three new bridges are led by the Texas Department of Transportation and the City of Fort Worth in cooperation with the North Central Texas Council of Governments. The entire Panther Island/Central City project is brought to you by the Trinity River Vision Authority, Tarrant Regional Water District, City of Fort Worth, Tarrant County, United States Army Corps of Engineers, Texas Department of Transportation and Streams and Valleys, Inc. (Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner) Max Faulkner Star-Telegram

Ultimately, the Trinity River Vision Authority opted to reject the Texas Department of Transportation’s offer and keep the V-pier design for the bridges. But since then, the bridge work has been beset by delays, and the bridge construction remains unfinished.

The original cost estimate for bridge construction was expected to be $65 million, although officials now say that although the final price tag is likely to be higher they don’t have a more up-to-date estimate. Freese & Nichols has the contract for the design and engineering of the bridges.

Reached Friday afternoon, J.D. Granger said he and other Trinity River Vision Authority officials initially favored the idea of building the bridges like the West Seventh structure. But he said that after consulting with Army Corps of Engineers officials the group determined the idea could greatly complicate the project and add more years to the construction schedule.

One key factor was that the West Seventh bridge relies upon numerous piers in the water, whereas the V-pier design requires only one section in the water. That’s crucial, he said, because the bypass channel needed to have as few obstructions as possible in the center of the water.

“The bypass channel was modeled specifically to accommodate the bridge models you see on the ground now, and that model took seven years to create,” he said.

Once those complications surfaced, J.D. Granger said, the idea of using the West Seventh design “started falling apart on its own.”

Kay Granger did not immediately return messages seeking comment for this story. Kay Granger is running for re-election Nov. 6. Her opponent is Democratic candidate Vanessa Adia.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796; @gdickson

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