Fort Worth

Why Panther Island might struggle to get federal funding

Panther Island will have difficulty getting included the president’s budget because of its inability to meet the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requirements, a source familiar with the project said.

Roughly 75 percent of the projects studied by the Corps don’t meet the benefit-cost ratio that is required to be part of the executive branch’s budget.

Panther Island could be built completely with local funding if it obtained the proper Corps permits, said the source, who requested anonymity because his firm doesn’t allow its employees to be identified. Last May, voters approved spending up to $250 million for Panther Island project.

But this week, the Fort Worth City Council said a review should be done before the city considers an extension of a tax increment financing district in the area. Revenue from the district would be used to pay for the bonds.

Mayor Betsy Price also suggested that the project may need to be scaled back to just flood protection in an attempt to secure federal funding.

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley also called for a review of the project Thursday, saying there is a need for someone to re-evaluate all phases of the project. Whitley said each detail should be re-examined and costs should be updated.

“At the same time, we should clarify, as best we can, the dollars absolutely committed to the project and if there are any strings attached to those commitments,” Whitley said via email. “Once this is done, then the parties should meet and make a new plan. This would include the Corps, the Water Board, the City and the County. As we discussed, I feel that the top priority should be the flood control items, but everyone needs to come to an agreement on how to proceed. Then in the future as more funds become available then other things can be added.”

The Tarrant Regional Water District has scheduled a special meeting for 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and is expected to consider a third party review of Panther Island.

The $1.16 billion flood control and economic development project didn’t receive funding for fiscal year 2018. So far, it has received $62 million from the federal government. Completing the project as planned would require the entire $526 million that Congress has approved.

In an email response to questions, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Clay Church said the agency is confident that the project will eventually receive federal funding.

But not being included in the president’s budget makes it far more difficult to ever obtain the full $526 million that has been authorized by Congress. That puts it in the same pool of discretionary funds with other Corps projects that didn’t make the president’s budget, the source said.

Jim Lane, a member of the Tarrant Regional Water District board of directors, is a long-time supporter of the project. The Trinity River Vision Authority, which oversees Panther Island, is a political subdivision of the water district.

He will support an audit or review of the project, though he questions the necessity for it.

“To me, it’s not an issue,” Lane said. “If they want to have an audit, they need to realize to pay their part of it.”

Matt Oliver, a Trinity River Vision Authority spokesman, said in an email earlier this week that the authority has always been an advocate for third-party reviews related to the project.

Lane said nothing has changed about federal funding for the project despite the mayor and City Council’s concerns.

“We’ve always said that the project relies on federal and state funding and there may be times during the process where it’s slowed down,” Lane said. “If the Corps had to divert funds for hurricane and flood relief this year, then they made the right decision.”

U..S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, has continued to say the funding will be there for the project, Lane said. Granger has not responded to requests for comment.

A scaled-down version of the project that would only deal with flood protection might look dramatically different.

Under that scenario, anything not considered flood protection would be stripped out of the project, including parks and sewer lines. But it would still include the all-important bypass channel.

“Sit down with the Corps and strip it down to the bare bones,” the source said. “Look for those other amenities in other federal programs and private funding.”

Could a scaled-down project make it into the president’s budget?

“That’s unknown,” the source said. “Depends on the calculation of benefits that arise from having the flood protection in place.”

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @ fwhanna
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