Fort Worth’s mayor calls for Panther Island project to be scaled back, audited

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Six months after asking voters to support $250 million in bond funds for Panther Island, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price on Monday called for the $1.16 billion project to be scaled back and said an audit would be necessary to ensure it was being managed properly.

“I’d love to see the entire project delivered as is, but for us to get any of the federal dollars it’s apparent it has to be scaled back to the central city,” Price said in a phone interview.

She said an audit of the Trinity River Vision Authority, the agency overseeing the project — which includes rerouting the river north of downtown Fort Worth and creating an island ripe for mixed-use development — was necessary because the project had grown so much since its inception in 2001.

“The project has changed dramatically in the last 14 years,” she said. “Some of it may be the scope. Some may be utilities, canals. We need to look at it. We need to look at all the processes ... and that often includes management.”

In May, when voters approved nearly $250 million in local bond funding, project supporters said the money would be sufficient to ensure that the project could be built by 2028.

Price’s comments come a few weeks after the Star-Telegram reported that the Panther Island project had been left off the federal budget for funding in 2018 or 2019, even though it had already been authorized by Congress.

At the time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said an economic study would be needed in order to receive funding.

Matt Oliver, Trinity River Vision Authority spokesman, said last week that such a study wasn’t needed when the project received authorization from Congress in 2016.

“We were looking at the end game, full authorization and what are the requirements. If it’s not a requirement we’re not going to spend the time and money,” Oliver said.

But Price on Monday said that during a recent trip to Washington she met with officials from the Office of Management and Budget as well as the White House communications staff, and was told that such a study was missing and would be required.

The Army Corps didn’t clarify Monday whether a study was needed for Panther Island to be prioritized, but in a statement spokesman Clay Church said funds had not been totally stripped. Though funding was left out of 2019’s Civil Works project budget, the Corps is exploring other funding sources, he said.

Panther Island is among several projects eligible for funding, Church said, adding that the Corps wouldn’t speculate on when or how it would be funded.

“It is the intention of USACE to eventually complete all projects for which construction has begun,” Clay said.

Federally funded portions of the project will continue, Oliver said, including work at Gateway Park where a retention pond is being built.

“We still have money from the feds, and there’s no reason to think we wouldn’t going forward,” he said.

Although the Fort Worth City Council doesn’t directly oversee Panther Island, it could force an audit by refusing to make changes to Panther Island’s special tax district to make it eligible for voter-approved bond funding, Price said.

For area business owners, the Panther Island project has caused years of headaches.

Charlie Wilson, one of the owners of Omaha’s Surplus, said the Panther Island bridge construction had made it difficult for customers to reach their business.

The company, which was founded in 1963, is tired of trying to fight with local officials over the issue and has moved on.

“We kind of just buried the hatchet,” Wilson said. “We’re tired of being negative. We’re just trying to make the best of it and be positive.”

Wilson has read the Star-Telegram stories about the Panther Island bridge designs and concerns over receiving federal funding. He feels the project will keep going despite any uncertainty over funding.

“They’re going to do what they want,” Wilson said.

Through social media and signage, Omaha’s Surplus business has partially recovered but the footprint of the bridges has left a lasting impact.

“I don’t think it will ever be the same with the limited exposure we now have because of the bridge,” Wilson said.

The Star-Telegram also reported last week that Congresswoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, had supported a proposal by the Texas Department of Transportation to build the three Panther Island bridges like the agency’s West Seventh Street bridge, which could have saved money and gotten the bridge work done by 2016.

However, Granger’s son, J.D. Granger, who is executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority, opposed the idea and wanted to keep the original design of the bridges — which have encountered delays and are now scheduled to be completed by 2020 or 2021.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796; @gdickson

Luke Ranker: 817-390-7747; @lrankernews
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