Fort Worth

When will those Panther Island bridges be open? Not as soon as commuters might hope

Piers sprout from the ground like concrete plants on North Main and Henderson streets north of downtown Fort Worth. On White Settlement Road, the bridge forming over dry land looks almost complete.

But the three bridges over the Trinity River connecting the rest of Fort Worth to the yet-to-be completed Panther Island are now between a year and two years behind schedule, construction managers say. Once slated to open by 2019, delays with design and construction have pushed back the opening dates to mid-2020 to 2021.

“We’ve had challenges along the way,” Texas Department of Transportation construction manager Greg Cedillo said.

Delays were first caused by the unique V-shape pier design, which engineers needed to test, and construction of each pier has further slowed the project.

The bridges’ construction is managed by TxDot with the city of Fort Worth as the local partner. They’re part of the larger Panther Island project, a flood control effort that will re-channel the river and create an 800-acre island ripe for redevelopment. The project carries a total cost of $1.16 billion with more than $65 million going to the bridges.

The White Settlement Road bridge, furthest along in construction, should be ready for traffic by late summer 2020, Cedillo said. North Main Street will be done in February 2021 and Henderson Road will follow in the spring of 2021, he said.

It’s not the first time the bridge construction has been delayed.

The design focuses the aesthetics on the area below the bridge deck — where the riverwalk would be — leaving the top of the structures for automobile use. TxDot offered 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, but Panther Island partners, including TxDot and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, determined the design wouldn’t work with the bypass channel because it relied on too many piers in the water.

In the beginning, bridge construction was delayed several years from at potential 2018 completion date partially because TxDot inspectors wanted to take a closer look at the design of the piers to ensure they would support the bridges’ weight, the Star-Telegram reported.

When design cleared, construction began moving at a brisker pace and was once on schedule for a 2020 completion date. But the unique construction of each pier presented further problems.

Construction crews can’t just use the same molds or copy the same design to save time, Cedillo said. Instead, each of the 20 piers is constructed separately, and if issues arise, such as pieces that don’t fit together properly, the engineer is brought in to make adjustments to the design before construction can move forward.

“If this was a bridge we call ‘off the shelf’ we could just duplicate it and it’d go a lot faster,” Cedillo said.

As construction continues, officials will continue to work with businesses impacted by closed roads, said Scott Cooner, a program manager tasked with communicating with affected businesses.

Two electric signs on White Settlement Road alert traffic about road closures and remind drivers that businesses, like Angelo’s Barbecue on White Settlement, are still open. Way-finding signs like those may be repositioned to better alert drivers to detours, he said.

As part of the grander Panther Island, the Army Corps will cut a bypass channel under the bridges, creating Panther Island in the Trinity River. Congress approved nearly $530 million for the project in 2016 but federal dollars haven’t been allocated in the last two fiscal years. About $62 million in federal funding has been allocated, with about $9 million left to continue Army Corps projects. Panther Island needs $26 million by 2020 to stay on track; about $322 million in local money has been spent since the project’s inception more than 10 years ago.

TxDot officials have said building the bridges over dry land before the channel is dug saves both time and money. The federal portion of the project — digging the channel — cannot be done until the bridges are complete.

In the meantime, the Trinity River Vision Authority, an arm of the Tarrant Regional Water District overseeing the project, has put out requests for proposals from consulting firms to independently review Panther Island’s management, budget and construction, among other things. A firm should be selected by March 7 with the review done by June 19. No cost has been set for the review.

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or
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