Fort Worth

Fort Worth’s Trinity River Vision moves forward with bridge construction

To supporters of Trinity River Vision, the construction of three bridges over dry land along Henderson Street and White Settlement Road is a sign of progress for the massive flood control and economic development project.

But critics still question whether the $910 million project, designed to transform the near north side across the river from downtown, will ever get enough money to become a reality.

The $65.5 million bridge portion of the project, overseen by the Texas Department of Transportation, is scheduled to be completed by 2018.

“I feel very good about where we are,” said U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, who first turned her attention to the Trinity when she was mayor of Fort Worth more than 20 years ago. “We’re on time and on budget. The bridges are where people say, ‘Now I can see this.’”

The bridges are being built on dry land — officials say it’s cheaper that way — ahead of a 1.8-mile bypass channel whose construction is scheduled to be started in about two years.

The channel will create Panther Island, an 800-acre development with miles of waterfront property in what was once an industrial area in north Fort Worth. Panther Island already exists in name at a pavilion and with more than 40 events a year along the the river.

Questions remain about how quickly the federal funding will arrive to complete the whole endeavor. The timeline shows the project completed by 2023, but officials said the schedule could slow down depending on funding.

Congress is expected to eventually cough up about half the cost.

So far, about $244 million has been spent on Trinity River Vision: $222.3 million from a variety of local sources and about $21.7 million in federal money appropriated to the Army Corps of Engineers. An additional $70.4 million has come from the Texas Department of Transportation and the North Texas Council of Governments.

To complete the project will require a $340 million appropriation to the Corps of Engineers.

The corps awarded two contracts this year: $3.16 million for channel piers near Henderson Street and White Settlement Road that are needed before the bypass channel is built, and $27.5 million for Riverside oxbow floodwater storage sites east of downtown. The Riverside oxbow must be dug out to handle all the floodwater that will be pushed eastward by the bypass channel.

Gail Hicks, the corps’ project manager, said funding challenges remain for Central City, the name for the corps’ portion of the project, which deals with flood control.

“We still find ourselves in a constrained funding environment and do not see that changing in the near future,” Hicks said in a statement. “We will execute project requirements as funding is made available. … We have been involved with the Trinity River Vision/Central City Project since conception and have no plans to change our involvement with the project.”

Because corps projects are funded on year by year, Trinity River Vision won’t be asking for a large pool of money until the project is closer to building the bypass channel, said J.D. Granger, the Trinity River Vision Authority’s executive director and the son of Kay Granger.

“We would actually request the money for the bypass channel about 18 months from now,” J.D. Granger said. “They won’t let you stockpile money.”

The bypass channel would divert the Trinity near the convergence of the West Fork and the Clear Fork, taking floodwaters through the near north side and east to the Riverside oxbow flood storage areas near Gateway Park. In Gateway Park, the city is spending about $5 million on improvements by the end of the year.

Trinity River Vision includes construction of a 33-acre urban lake just north of downtown, along with floodgates and floodwater storage areas.

The hope is that developers will be attracted to the completed project. For now, the 800-acre area is home to the Coyote Drive-In and Panther Island Brewery. Trinity River Vision officials hope a developer will break ground on the first mixed-use development within 12-16 months.

“Trinity River Vision is going to happen,” J.D. Granger said. “It’s a matter of timing right now. We don’t have a reason to slow it down, but we have a commitment to slow it down if the funds come in at a slower pace than anticipated.”

Funding questions linger

Critics, including Tarrant Regional Water District board member Mary Kelleher, question whether the money will ever arrive. The Trinity River Vision Authority operates as a political subdivision of the water district.

“I think the three bridges are an expensive diversion being used to convince the taxpayers the project is progressing when in reality the funds have not been secured for this project,” Kelleher said. “Every taxpayer should be concerned about the TRV project.”

Kelleher said she voted against the 2016 TRV budget because she believes “that the TRV project is an economic development project under the guise of flood control.”

Vic Henderson, president of the water district’s board and a member of the Trinity River Vision board, said Kelleher is not speaking for the rest of the board. Like J.D. Granger, Henderson said the project will slow down if necessary.

“Trinity River Vision is taking shape,” Henderson said. “You can certainly see what’s going on there. The vision is now under construction and obviously a reality. I’m very pleased with the project’s progress.”

Former Councilman Clyde Picht has also been a vocal opponent of the program since its inception. He said the flurry of recreational activities at Panther Island pavilion, such as Rockin’ the River and the recent Oktoberfest, may build goodwill but serve as a distraction from the overall funding questions.

“My concerns are greater now actually,” Picht said. “They’re using 2009 figures that haven’t been updated. It’s a boondoggle. It’s really more fluid than it appears. You really can’t say what it will cost.”

Trinity River Vision spokesman Matt Oliver said the $910 million figure takes into account a 3  1/2 percent annual inflation rate through 2023.

Rep. Granger vowed the project will be finished because it’s a partnership between local governments and the Corps.

“You never get these projects funded at one time,” Kay Granger said. “What happened in the past is if you started a project it would be finished. This project will absolutely be finished and one of the reasons is Washington said, ‘We’re going to partner with you on this.’ There was an obligation because they made the local funds go first.”

In February, Central City was one of many corps projects that didn’t receive additional authorization under the 2014 Water Resources Reform and Development Act. Central City is authorized as a $220 million project with the federal share limited to $110 million.

“The wishes of Congress were not met,” Kay Granger said, adding that Trinity River Vision and other corps projects are now applying with new criteria set by Congress.

Trinity River Vision hopes to hear something early next year.

Councilman Sal Espino, who represents the north side and is a member of the Trinity River Vision board, said it might be time to update the project’s cost estimates but remains confident that the funding will come.

“It’s a long-term project but it does appear the infrastructure will be put in place,” Espino said. “I believe we will get our share of dollars.”

Cleaning up hazards

In Espino’s district, the project is helping to transform former industrial areas filled with environmental hazards along North Main Street.

The properties could have been used again as industrial sites, but anything else would likely have been ruled out, said Woody Frossard, Trinity River Vision’s project manager. Frossard said Trinity River Vision has worked to clean up the property to satisfy the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“Nobody could have bought it and used it for anything else,” Frossard said. “It was contaminated. Everybody we do we clean up to residential standards, which is the highest standard you can get from TCEQ.”

Water district board member Jim Lane once represented the north side as a city councilman. As a criminal lawyer, he said, he sees the changes daily on his way downtown.

“I drive down North Main every day to get to the courthouse,” Lane said. “A lot of those buildings that were there are now gone and I know what’s coming next. We’re on our way.”

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna

Trinity River Vision funding

Many local, state and federal agencies are chipping in for the Central City/Panther Island project, which is expected to cost about $910 million. Below are funds budgeted for the project:

  • Fort Worth: $26.6 million
  • Tarrant County: $11 million
  • Tarrant Regional Water District: $64.4 million
  • Tax increment financing district: $320 million *
  • Texas Department of Transportation/North Central Texas Council of Governments: $66.3 million
  • Army Corps of Engineers: $411.6 million
  • Federal economic development/housing: $10 million
  • Total: $909.9 million

* Includes a loan of up to $226 million from the Tarrant Regional Water District's natural gas funds. To date, the district has loaned about $121 million.

Source: Trinity River Vision Authority/Tarrant Regional Water District

Trinity River Vision budget

  • Trinity River Vision events such as Rockin’ the River and the recent Oktoberfest operate as an enterprise fund. An enterprise fund is designed to make enough revenue to break even.
  • In fiscal 2014, Trinity River Vision broke even with revenues and expenses of $744,620. It is budgeted to break even in fiscal 2016. Final fiscal 2015 figures weren’t available.
  • Last year, 44 events were held at Panther Island Pavilion. Most organizations pay a rental fee to use the facility.

Source: Trinity River Vision Authority