Fort Worth

$1.2 billion and no end in sight: Why Panther Island is so costly and complicated

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Panther Island has been pitched as a flood control project that would also bring Fort Worth a vibrant riverfront neighborhood — new commercial and residential space along the banks of the Trinity River along with a more than $3.7 billion boost the local economy.

It would be made possible only by a $1.17 billion federally backed project to cut a channel in the river and form the island. That effort stalled after Washington skipped allocating money for Panther Island last year. That led to questions about the project’s management and purpose and prompted local leaders to ask for an independent review of the project. Only one firm is willing to do the study.

For many, questions remain: Is Panther Island a legitimate flood control project? Or is it an economic development plan masquerading as a flood control project to tap federal money?

Backers of the endeavor say behind the renderings of river walks and apartment towers is a necessary flood control project that will pull thousands of acres of Fort Worth real estate out of a flood plain.

Opponents say it’s simply a gleaming opportunity to re-imagine downtown Fort Worth that ignores real flooding issues.

Layla Caraway, a Haltom City resident, says Panther Island steals funding and attention from other flood control projects, like one designed to mitigate Fossil Creek flooding. Her home was damaged when rising Big Fossil Creek waters swallowed nearly 50 feet of her backyard in 2007.

“We don’t have money to fix a watershed that’s been flooding for decades, but we have $1 billion to reroute the river?” she said. “What floods now will flood when this is complete. We need to address true flooding.”

Woody Frossard, an engineer with the Tarrant Regional Water District, says the project does address flooding issues. It aims to stop a projected flood that could damage multiple neighborhoods, he said.

”It’s not some flood somebody dreamed up sitting back somewhere,” he said. “These really do occur and they’ve occurred in Texas.”

Bypass vs. levees

So why is Panther Island needed and how exactly does the bypass mitigate flooding?

Fort Worth’s 21 miles of levees along the river can no longer protect the city adequately from a major flooding event, Frossard said. That’s largely because of the boom in development since the levees were built in the 1960s. More pavement means the ground is less able to absorb rain before it runs into the river.

The project won’t alleviate the urban flash flooding that has increasingly plagued Fort Worth streets. And it doesn’t protect an area that regularly sees major flooding.

Instead, it pulls about 2,400 acres out of the flood plain for what the Army Corps of Engineers calls a “standard project flood,” the most severe flood considered possible for a region. Property value was estimated to be worth more than $2 billion in that area but updated numbers weren’t available.

That area includes the future Panther Island, a former industrial zone that would transform into about 800 acres ripe for development.

Engineers believe the project would protect several neighborhoods n both forks of the Trinity River, including parts of Linwood, Crestwood, the West 7th Street district and and area west of Brookside Drive around Isbell Road. Burton Hill and River Oaks would also be protected.

The Clear Fork and West Fork meet just north of downtown, where they immediately flow against the bedrock bluff the city is built on. The larger river then flows around a tight U-bend before heading downstream.

In heavy rain, that confluence slows the flow of water, increasing the risk for flooding upstream, said Frossard, of the Tarrant Regional Water District.

The bypass channel essentially skips the U-bend, allowing the water to flow quickly downstream during a flood stage.

This means more water moving faster toward downstream cities such as Dallas. To prevent that, overflow basins are being constructed in Gateway and Riverside Park. During a flood, water will top the levees along the parks, spilling water into the basins and slowing the flow.

Opponents argue this approach doesn’t make sense.

“They’re creating a flood situation to take a flood situation,” Clyde Picht said in December.

Picht, who voted in favor of the project when he was on the Fort Worth City Council, and others have argued the cost has ballooned too much and the city would have saved time and money had it gone with an overhaul of the levee system.

When looking at any project, the Army Corps is required to examine alternatives. The alternative explored for the Trinity River was to raise two of the 12 levees in the city at a cost of about $10 million.

Frossard said that plan was a no-go from the beginning. Raising only two levees kept the rest of the city vulnerable, and raising all the levees would have been too costly. The Corps never priced raising all 12 levees, he said.

To be structurally sound, levees require three feet of base width on each side for every foot in height. In heavily-developed Fort Worth, raising the height of the levees would require obtaining more private property, largely from homeowners, than the Panther Island bypass. Fort Worth has about 21 miles of levees along the Trinity.

Raising the levees also requires moving utilities and raising several bridges. Under one part of a the levee plan, a watertight gate would need to be closed manually on either side of the river, Frossard said.

“I don’t know why we, as a governmental entity charged with protecting Fort Worth, would choose to only protect part of Fort Worth,” Frossard said of the Corps’ alternative of raising only two levees.

Levee size is an issue in urban areas, said Dave Dzombak, a water infrastructure expert and head of Carnegie Mellon University’s civil and environmental engineering department.

To be effective, all levees in the system must be brought to the same height. Dzombak pointed to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, where a mishmash of levees built at different heights and to different standards exacerbated flooding.

When not all the levees in cities can be raised at once, cities struggle to decide which land should be protected first.

“It becomes a battle of levee height,” he said. “Who’s building the tallest levee to protect what neighborhood?”

Local advocates have long said Panther Island not only avoids raising the levees, but it also provides a a unique development rivaling San Antonio’s River Walk. The channel creates roughly 12 miles of riverfront property in central Fort Worth.

To make that happen, significant work is needed on the future island, including new roads, sewage and storm water lines. All of that must be funded with local dollars.

A special 40-year tax district was established to help fund development, but most of the district’s projected revenue would be generated from development that would occur on the island. In 2018 voters passed a $250 million bond, which will pay for infrastructure on the island including some flood control.

Time and money

Part of the growing frustration with Panther Island is its lengthy time line and ballooning cost.

Originally conceived in the early 2000s, the project’s price tag in 2005 was less than $500 million. Nearly 15 years later, the cost is well over $1 billion, and no dirt has moved for the channel.

Officials say completion could be another 15 years out.

Lynn Lovell, a retired Fort Worth engineer who worked for the Army Corps and Halff Associates, said that’s normal for major federal projects. Projects can take “an extremely long time” from the planning stages to full development, he said.

He pointed to the flood-prone Big and Little Fossil creeks in Haltom City. He recalled working on designs for flood control in the area during his time at the Corps in the late 1960s and ‘70s, and said he often grew frustrated when projects were put off in favor of other priorities mandated by Washington.

“Funding these projects is competitive nationwide,” he said. “It just depends on Congress’ mood and how powerful the congressional delegation is.”

Fort Worth has had a powerful champion in Congress, Rep. Kay Granger, whose son J.D. Granger oversees the Panther Island project.

She set her eyes on the Trinity as mayor of Fort Worth and helped push the project to congressional approval in 2016. It was with Congress’ blessing the project moved forward without a cost-benefit analysis, something nearly all Corps projects need and a major sticking point for the White House in 2018.

A cost-benefit analysis would look at the economic impact of flooding in the proposed area versus the cost of the project. Frossard and Corps officials said the traditional cost-benefit analysis was skipped because the economic benefit of the island, currently undeveloped and in the floodplain, can’t be measured.

Even without the analysis, Lovell said based on his experience, the project likely received significant vetting.

“My experience with the Corps is they’re a bunch of straight arrows,” he said. “They may have some political pressure, but they go by the rules, federal rules.”

Projects like Panther Island maybe going by the wayside regardless.

The time and cost of major projects has spurred a growing trend of moving away from structural projects like dams, levees and bypass channels in favor of using natural floodways and changing building codes, said Dzombak, the Carnegie Mellon professor.

“These big scale projects, they’re costly and complicated and difficult to design. We can’t protect against every conceivable flood event,” he said. “We really should explore other options before investing in big infrastructure.”

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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 lranker@star-telegram.com.
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