With a symbolic explosion of fire, officials kicked off construction for the three Panther Island bridges, signaling the next phase in the massive Trinity River Vision Project.
Between now and 2018, the three bridges along Henderson Street, North Main Street and White Settlement Road will be built over dry land with the eventual goal of creating an urban waterfront neighborhood on the near-northside across from downtown Fort Worth.
It does not effect existing bridges over the Trinity River.
Instead, the spans will be the first phase of Panther Island, which will eventually include digging a new 1.5-mile-long channel for the Trinity River, creating a 33-acre lake and an 800-acre island where waterfront development is planned.
“This is not a bridge to nowhere,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. “We’re digging this over dry land because it’s half the cost of building it over the channel.”
The $65.5 million Texas Department of Transportation project was awarded to Texas Sterling Construction in May and is a joint project among the Trinity River Vision Authority, the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County, the Army Corps of Engineers and the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
The three V-pier bridges will include access for pedestrians and cyclists along with lighting and landscaping. The North Main bridge will also have enough space for streetcars if the city ever decides to go that route.
“Those are important steps along the way,” said U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth. “It is the bypass channel that we have got to have funding for.”
To complete the project, Trinity River Vision still needs Congress to fund roughly half of the $910 million to complete the economic development and flood control project. The front end of the project was frontloaded with local dollars from the Tarrant Regional Water District, the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.
When Congress set a ban on earmarks, which have historically been used by politicians to push projects forward, it made funding more challenging.
But Granger said “without a doubt,” she will secure the funds.
“You don’t start something that you can’t finish,” Granger said. “....That is my commitment.”
Granger said Trinity River Vision, which is a political subdivision of the Tarrant Regional Water Distrit, will apply for grants from several U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funds to keep the dollars flowing until the bypass channel is fully funded.
She is not surprised by the time it has taken to secure dollars.
“I knew how long it was going to take,” Granger said. “It’s the largest urban water project in North America. It’s huge.”
Texas Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff of Arlington said it is Granger’s oversight that convinces him the federal dollars will be available to finish the project.
“I put my faith in Congresswoman Granger to do that,” Vandergriff said. “It is a little bit of a leap of faith to build bridges over dry land and not be certain that the extra funding is coming but I understand the Corps of Engineers can only fund on a budgetary cycle. They can’t promise a 20 or 30-year funding commitment and I trust in Congresswoman Granger to be able to continue to guide this process along.”
Granger’s son, J.D. Granger, is executive director of Trinity River Vision. With the beginning of bridge construction, he said Panther Island will become more visible to residents.
“The two big things you’ll see over the next year are the three bridges coming out of the ground showing vertical construction — in addition to that, a lot of people have been speculative buying of property waiting for the first sign,” J.D. Granger said. “I expect to hear a lot about economic development opportunities during the next year.”
Yet since the project began, there have been critics who worried that local taxpayers could end up footing the bill for the entire project.
TRWD board member Mary Kelleher, who has battled with her fellow board members over a variety of issues, did not attend Monday’s ceremony but said in statement that she worries about the project’s future.
“I do not want to go down in history as being present for the groundbreaking of what many anticipate, myself included, will be referred to one day as the biggest boondoggle in the history of Fort Worth,” Kelleher said. “I'm disappointed in the decision to move ahead with building bridges over dry land without funding certainty.”