Fort Worth

Panther Island at risk of running out of money; project faces delay

Without new revenue from a $250 million bond program, the Trinity River Vision Authority will run out of cash this fall, possibly as early as next month.

The budget for the authority, which coordinates the local effort behind the $1.17 billion Panther Island project, has relied on a $200 million loan from the Tarrant Regional Water District since its inception. But little of that original loan remains, about $7 million, so the authority will have to turn to bond money to fund the rest of the $36.6 million 2020 budget.

The problem: That $250 million bond can’t be funded without extending the lifespan of a special tax district designed to repay the debt. The Fort Worth City Council and Mayor Betsy Price have been unwilling to extend the tax district until questions about future federal funding are resolved.

The TRVA board — a group of city, county and water district officials who oversee the coordination of the project — approved the $36.6 million budget earlier this month, but final approval came Tuesday from the Tarrant Regional Water District board.

The budget in question won’t affect funding for three bridges being built downtown or the salaries for some employees like authority executive director J.D. Granger, who are paid through the water district.

Sandy Newby, finance office for the water district and authority, said the money left from the loan should last through October or November depending on how much is spent on an upcoming land deal. The authority will also have to slow down relocation, demolition and environmental work related to preparing the land for the Army Corps of Engineers to dig a 1.5 mile channel in the Trinity River north of downtown.

The channel is designed as a flood control measure, but will create an 800-acre island ripe for development. Congress in 2016 authorized up to $526 million for the project, but the project has not been prioritized in the federal budget. The Corps, in coordination with the water district, has asked for $30 million to $40 million each year but has received just $68 million since its inception in mid-2000s.

In approving the budget earlier this month, the authority voted to direct the water district to ask the city to cover about $13.4 million for utility work needed to bring development to the island.

The authority is also working out how to move forward with recommendations from Dallas-based consultant Riveron. A report made public earlier this month suggested several structural and management changes to the TRVA.

Those suggestions should be vetted before the city extends the special tax district, called a TIF, Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke said.

”It is our responsibility to be strong stewards of taxpayer dollars,” he said in an email. “To that end, we feel it would be irresponsible to extend the TIF without implementing the Riveron recommendations and having a clear path forward to secure federal funds.”

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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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