Fort Worth

What’s next for Panther Island after independent review?

A messaging problem might be getting in the way of Panther Island funding, says independent study

Kevin Ruiz, a representative with the Dallas-based consulting firm Riveron gave the Trinity River Vision Authority a summary of the independent review on Monday, August 12, 2019. A key concern throughout the meeting was funding for the project.
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Kevin Ruiz, a representative with the Dallas-based consulting firm Riveron gave the Trinity River Vision Authority a summary of the independent review on Monday, August 12, 2019. A key concern throughout the meeting was funding for the project.

A consultant’s report done at the urging of Fort Worth’s mayor laid out several steps to improve management of the Panther Island project, but it’s unclear when officials will adopt the recommendations or if the report will lead to federal funding.

Local officials tasked with monitoring the Army Corps Corps of Engineers’ effort to reroute the river north of downtown say many suggestions from Dallas-based Riveron could improve transparency and messaging surrounding the flood control and economic development project.

Jim Oliver, Tarrant Regional Water District manger and a Trinity River Vision Authority board member, downplayed some of the consultant’s suggestions, saying they were already being done. But he remained open to discussing others. Other board members appeared willing to take on the recommendations.

The Trinity River Vision Authority board, a group of city, county and water district officials who oversee the coordination of the project, are expected to discuss the recommendations at a Sept. 4 meeting. The authority coordinates the work of the city, state and water district.

Riveron’s report, unveiled in its final form Monday, contained three major recommendations:

Separate responsibilities so the Trinity River Vision Authority focuses on flood control, the water district on recreation and a new nonprofit to oversee economic development.

Have executive director J.D. Granger — son of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth — report to the Trinity River Vision Authority board. He now reports to Jim Oliver, a board member and Tarrant Regional Water District general manager.

Create a formal risk management office within the Trinity River Vision Authority. The office would identify and assess the risks that could affect the project. The goal is to coordinate and communicate project progress and challenges.

Riveron’s report outlined priorities, suggesting that the creation of the economic development nonprofit was a higher priority and should be done first, along with realigning the reporting structure for J.D. Granger.

Trinity River Vision Authority board members didn’t specify their priorities, but Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius, who heads the board, said Riveron’s report “should be taken very seriously.”

City Manger David Cooke, a board member, said the Trinity River Vision Authority must decide if it needs to exist or if it should have more authority. Riveron’s recommendations, he said, would move it closer to latter, especially if it took on oversight of Granger.

Spinning the economic development off into a separate nonprofit and moving recreation under the water district would clear up the project’s image, he said, and could lead to better optics in Washington.

“If you separate things, that helps remove any argument it’s not a flood control project,” he said.

Cooke’s opinion of the Panther Island-related presentations to the public and Washington officials differed from that of Oliver, who said Washington officials had long been clear on the project’s mission. He said people tend to not focus on the flood control features.

“When we go out and do talks, no one wants to know about how big the dams are or how the locks work. They want to know about what will be on Panther Island, how cool is it going to be,” Oliver said.

He said separating the “glitzy” from the flood control has been a problem, but he anticipates changes to the project’s messaging.

Oliver said having Granger report to the Trinity River Vision Authority board made no sense because he is a water district employee.

The Star-Telegram reported in November that Granger, who makes more than $200,000, received no written performance evaluation.

Asked if he would consider having Granger report to the publicly elected water district board, Oliver said he was open to the idea.

Granger did not return phone messages or an email seeking comment.

Many of Riveron’s suggestions are already being done in some form, Oliver said.

Riveron’s assessment pointed to an apparent lack of risk management and planning and suggested creating a special office for managing issues that may jeopardize the project.

Oliver said Woody Frossard, a project manager for the water district, city employees and other project officials met frequently to discuss risk management. He said their reports could be reviewed by either the water district board or the project board in the future.

He also said Riveron’s suggestion of moving recreation promotion to the water district was something he had been working on for about six months.

Maenius said highlighting risk management efforts and looking for ways to improve them stood out as a key recommendation. He said he expects board members to have a robust conversation about how to move forward at the September meeting.

He said he thought messaging had become clouded, even in Washington, and that following most, if not all of Riveron’s recommendations could improve that.

“I think the public as a whole will be able to see more details with some of the things we deal with,” he said.

James Hill, an elected member of both the water district and authority boards who advocated for the review, welcomed the recommendations. He called them “a step in the right direction” and suggested the authority could do more to encourage federal funding.

“I think we can take a further dive in the project and figure out a way to deliver it effectively,” he said. “The changes they’re recommending aren’t political.”

Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks, a Trinity River Vision board member, said the recommendations were not major, but deserved to be addressed quickly. He said he didn’t have particularly strong opinions about the recommendations but thought they all had merit.

“There’s no advantage to not correcting course immediately,” he said, noting that he thought the recommendations could help secure federal funds. “We fully expect the federal government to step up and resume support.”

Congress in 2016 authorized up to $526 million for Panther Island, but the Trump administration has been unwilling to provide money, saying a cost-benefit analysis is needed. Army Corps of Engineers projects like the bypass channel typically receive such a study before authorization.

While taxpayers have fronted about $328 million for the non-federal portion of the project, the federal half has received just $68 million.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who called for the review following reports the federal government passed over the project in the 2019 budget, met with Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director and acting chief of staff, along with U.S. Rep. Roger Williams in July. The meeting focused on how the project could move up in White House priorities. As much as $250 million for the project was discussed during the meeting.

Price said Thursday she wasn’t sure if following the review’s recommendations would improve funding chances.

“It certainly can’t hurt our chances,” she said, adding that she had full faith project leaders would review and proceed with any needed changes.

A White House spokesman said budget officials had not seen the report.

Kay Granger, in a statement, said she had not received a copy of the report and couldn’t comment on it. She added that she would continue working with the White House budget office on requirements for funding.

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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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