Fort Worth

Panther Island searching for cash after Trump leaves project out of 2020 budget

What is Panther Island?

Panther Island is a $1.16 billion plan to re-route the Trinity River and redirect flood waters around the low-lying areas north of downtown. Here's what you should know.
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Panther Island is a $1.16 billion plan to re-route the Trinity River and redirect flood waters around the low-lying areas north of downtown. Here's what you should know.

Fort Worth’s $1.17 billion Panther Island, which has missed federal funding for the last two years, is not included the president’s 2020 budget, placing it in a line with other federal projects vying for leftover cash.

Project officials must now hope that unused money from other Army Corps of Engineers work will be sent to Fort Worth. If not, it’s unclear what could happen with the flood-control and economic development project north of downtown.

The exclusion would be a major blow to a project that would essentially recreate central Fort Worth. Local officials said in November that $26 million would be needed from the federal government in 2020 to keep the ambitious project on track.

At the time, a presentation to the Trinity River Vision Authority board indicated at least $40 million worth of work could be done this year, but only $9 million in federal money remained from prior allocations. A little more than $5 million was devoted to work in Gateway Park earlier this year. Though not apart of the bypass channel, the flood control features downstream are necessary for the channel to work.

Congress approved up to $526 million in federal funding in 2016 but the money must be doled out over time in separate spending bills. The Army Corps and White House budget office then have leverage in deciding which projects are chosen to actually receive money. Since inception, the project has received a little more than $60 million from the federal government while local taxpayers have spent more than $320 million.

An additional $35 million would be needed in 2021.

Local officials say they’re hopeful money will come soon.

There is a chance money could still come to Fort Worth, said J.D. Granger, the executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority.

Each year the Corps looks at projects across the country for unspent money and reallocates it places where work is ready to begin. Panther Island has received funding that way in the past, though Granger didn’t have an exact figure. He said he was confident the local Corps district could secure funding, saying it had “a good reputation” for budgeting. He cautioned against asking for too much, saying it could be a “black mark” if the project received more than it could spend.

Woody Frossard, a project manager for the Tarrant Regional Water District, the local project sponsor, said he couldn’t speculate about what would happen if the Corps didn’t receive funding in 2020. Frossard said the Corps suspends projects it knows lack funding or aren’t capable of being completed. But that is unlikely for Panther Island, he said, because work continues downstream even without channel funding.

“We’re ready,”Frossard said. “So we’re hoping we can get some swapped money this year. If they give us $26 million, we’ll use it. If they give us $6 million we’ll use it.”

Funding has been in doubt since last year.

The Trump administration last October declared Panther Island not “policy compliant for budgeting because of the lack of an economic analysis.” It did not receive money in the 2018 or 2019 fiscal years.

The project was done in lieu of the cost-benefit analysis normally required. Project officials have said the study was skipped because the Corps can’t measure future economic development that would be driven by the creation of the downtown island.

A recent consultant’s report found confusion surrounding the project and suggested changes to the management structure overseeing the project. It’s unclear if Dallas-based Riveron’s findings or recommendations will affect future allocations, though its study did note that improving management and planning could “further the potential for future federal contributions.”

Billed as both economic development and flood control, the Army Corps of Engineers’ Central City Project, also known as Panther Island, would cut a channel in the Trinity River, forming a 800-acre island. As a result, Fort Worth would receive a San Antonio-style riverfront development in the heart of the city.

Work has progressed slowly since its inception more than 15 years ago. The Army Corps is constructing flood control features east of downtown in Gateway and Riverside parks, and three bridges necessary to connect the future island are behind schedule, but under construction. Crucial channel work has not begun.

The Riveron report briefly mentioned the cost-benefit analysis but did not address whether one was needed.

“The current confusion over whether one is needed has created the current policy and technical obstruction to federal funding,” the report said.

Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke, who sits on the Trinity River Vision Authority board, has said before he’d like clarity on whether the cost-benefit analysis is needed.

“The big question is, ‘Are we going to get $521 million and, if so, when?’ ” Cooke said Thursday.

The study, while noting there was no malfeasance or wrongdoing, found the project failed to plan for funding changes and other obstacles. Riveron suggested forming a risk management office and reporting structure, among other recommendations.

It noted that the public views Panther Island as three projects in one — flood control, economic development and recreation.

“This creates a problem not only in terms of identifying responsible parties but also in obtaining federal funding because the (Army Corps) is not permitted to spend federal dollars on local economic development,” the report said.

The report suggests splitting recreation and real estate development into a separate nonprofit so the water district can focus on flood control. The idea has not been discussed officially.

The White House said projects are chosen on a performance basis, including economic, environmental, and safety factors.

Army Corps Assistant Secretary R.D. James told lawmakers something similar in March saying the priority was on projects with an “economic return to the nation.” At the time, the Star-Telegram reported the Corps remained committed to Fort Worth’s project, along with a slew of other backlogged work. As much as $80 billion in projects are vying for Corps funding.

James said at the time he had worked with U.S. Rep. Kay Granger to figure out whether there are “other authorizations” needed for the project to move up among White House priorities.

Granger’s office did not respond to questions regarding future funding.

Federal funding

Federal funding for Panther Island:

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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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