Politics & Government

Deemed low priority, Panther Island is now in long queue for federal funding

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Fort Worth’s Panther Island — skipped over for federal funding in the 2018 fiscal year — is now in a fierce competition for federal money with a long list of other projects.

Despite strong support for the Texas project from the Army Corps of Engineers and Rep. Kay Granger — both of whom defended its viability after the Star-Telegram reported it was cut from the federal budget in 2018 — the plan could go years without federal money while the Army Corps of Engineers works its way through bigger flood problems in other parts of the country.

A senior administration official said Friday that the project is competing with others that total between $60 billion and $80 billion — many of which are viewed as more time-sensitive than the $1.16 billion plan to re-route the Trinity River.

President Donald Trump left the project out of his own budget, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of the Army Corps’ funding. Remaining projects are competing for an additional $2.5 billion provided by Congress to the Corps as members hope to get money to their favored projects.

“Congress shot itself in the foot when it precluded itself from awarding earmarks,” said a source familiar with the process, who requested anonymity because of his current job. “Now the executive branch gets to make all these decisions... they gave away the keys to the car.”

Panther Island, also known as the Trinity River Vision, has been approved by Congress for $526 million in federal funds. That money must be doled out over time by a separate House committee where Granger is a senior member.

Until 2013, Congress could allocate funds for specific projects in their spending bills — something Granger did for the Trinity River project, which her son now oversees.

Congress ended that practice as a means of cutting government spending, turning much of the spending power over to the White House budget office — now run by conservative former congressman Mick Mulvaney.

Though Panther Island’s planners told the Star-Telegram they’ve so far been able to keep the project on pace using local funds, federal money will become more critical in the coming years. Investors are counting on eventually receiving the full $526 million Congress approved for the project, and wouldn’t be able to make up their investments if they have to fund that portion themselves.

Neither Granger’s office nor the House Appropriations Committee officials responded to requests for comment.

A statement from Granger on Wednesday that it’s “[no] secret that as a result of recent hurricane recovery and relief efforts being stretched thin over the past two years.”

So far Panther Island has received $62 million from the Army Corps. Last fiscal year it received no money. The next round of funding, covering fiscal year 2019, which began Monday, will be announced by the Corps before the end of this year.

Though the Corps still fully supports the Fort Worth project — calling it a necessary flood control measure for a growing city — the Trump administration has final say over which projects will be funded, and did not include it in its own budgets for the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years.

“There has always been tension between OMB and the [Army] Corps,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group.

“The Corps really looks at Congress as their boss rather than OMB and the rest of the executive branch. That’s harder under the earmark moratorium because Corps budget is build project by project, and unless you have earmarks, Congress couldn’t force the administration to spend money on certain projects.”

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She can be reached at adrusch@mcclatchydc.com; @andreadrusch
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