Facing questions about the oversight of Panther Island — a $1.16 billion flood control project with development potential that failed to receive federal funding this fiscal year — the Tarrant Regional Water District’s board of directors Tuesday recommended an independent review.
Board member Jim Lane fired back at notions that Fort Worth leaders were out of the loop on the project’s finances, management and progress, and characterized public calls for an audit from Mayor Betsy Price and City Council members as “an unfair deal.”
The board’s vote, to recommend the Trinity River Vision Authority consider a review, is merely a step toward a full independent analysis of the project. The Vision Authority’s board may consider the review Nov. 7.
Panther Island, also called the Trinity River Vision project, aims to reduce flooding through central Fort Worth by cutting a bypass channel for the river north of downtown, creating Panther Island. The area, formerly filled with industrial sites, would be ripe for redevelopment along the expanded riverfront.
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Congress authorized the project for up to $526 million for the flood control aspect, but left it out of the 2019 federal budget — a move that has worried local officials.
Lane attacked doubts about the water district’s oversight of the project and said he hadn’t heard directly from city officials about concerns with the project. He pointed to the Trinity River Vision Authority’s board, which includes city manager David Cooke and councilman Carlos Flores along with county officials, as proof city leaders have been involved in Panther Island decision-making.
“Nobody has tried to hide anything,” Lane said. “The council jumped out and said ‘do an audit.’ OK. What do you want audited? Yourself, your own participation? Great, we’ll do it. Top to bottom”
Calls for a independent review of Panther Island’s management, finances and progress started last week when Price suggested the economic development arm the project be trimmed back so planners could focus on flood control. Council members also voiced support for not extending a special tax district that would pay off $250 million in bonds until a review is done.
Lane and water district general manager Jim Oliver Tuesday remained firm that federal funding would eventually materialize again.
The Army Corps of Engineers has said the project remains eligible, but Price said last week she met with representatives of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget who told her an economic analysis was needed before the administration would prioritize Panther Island.
Responding to questions about future funding, Lane said it was up to Republican U.S. Rep. Kay Granger.
“If she says funding will be available, then I’ll bet funding will be available,” Lane said.
Oliver said the district knew federal funding would be year-to-year and that national politics play into federally funded projects.
“You’re always going to have people in D.C. opposed to projects,” Oliver said.
Before the vote, Oliver attempted to dispel “myths” about the Panther Island project during an agenda item originally described as an overview of the Trinity River Vision Authority’s structure. He said the Vision Authority wasn’t funding private development. Redevelopment and recreational use may come as a result of the project but are not a focus of the Vision Authority, he said.
If the city wanted to scale back elements of the project, recreational components of Gateway Park, where a retention pond is under construction, could be limited, he said.
TRWD board member James Hill, who is also a member of the Trinity River Vision Authority’s board, welcomed a review calling it “good business.”
“The point of doing an audit is to identify if we should be concerned,” he said.
Lane sparred briefly with reporters following the board’s vote.
Facing questions about whether Panther Island documents would be made freely available for reporters to review, Lane rebutted by asking reporters if they had ever been denied documents they requested.
Most said yes, citing high fees, attorney general reviews and lengthy wait times.
“If you have a concern about the law in Texas as far as open records, somebody needs to tell us,” he said.