Politics & Government

Texas officials secured big money for flood control, just not in Fort Worth

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Follow all of the Star-Telegram’s Panther Island coverage

Read more about Fort Worth’s $1.16 billion flood control and economic development project that has stopped receiving federal funds.

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Powerful Texas lawmakers are taking credit for securing billions of dollars for flood control projects across the state this year — but not Fort Worth’s Panther Island.

The flood control and economic development project was quietly cut from the federal budget by an administration that says it’s a low priority for federal funding. Meanwhile a different Trinity River project in Dallas this year received roughly $275,000 in federal funds designated for “disaster recovery” in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Texas’s well-connected lawmakers have remained largely quiet about the Panther Island project’s future, leaving Fort Worth’s local officials to lobby on its behalf in Washington.

“We are specifically seeking funding for the flood and bypass channels, which provides the largest flood control benefit,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price.

Price met with Jim Hertz, director of natural resources programs at the White House Office of Management and Budget, on Sept. 27 and Oct. 11 to discuss the project. Hertz confirmed that Panther Island is not in the budget for the 2019 fiscal year, and its eligibility for federal funding is in question, Price told the Star-Telegram Thursday.

“We must find out why the federal government is not fulfilling its commitment to this project and find a way forward,” she added of the project, which Congress approved for up to $526 million in federal funding in 2016.

In a recent press call about flood control projects in other parts of the state, Texas Sen. John Cornyn directed a Star-Telegram question about Panther Island to his staff, who later said the senator supports the project and “hopes the administration will make it a priority.”

Cornyn serves as No. 2 in Senate GOP leadership. His staff declined to provide details about his work on Panther Island.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also declined a question from the Star-Telegram about the project’s future this month, despite campaigning hard on his work helping flood recovery efforts in Houston where he lives.

Cruz aggressively touted his close White House connections in a rally for his re-election race with President Donald Trump this week. His office declined to say whether he’d been involved in seeking funding for Panther Island’s flood control elements.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, whose office worked with the Army Corps on distributing $5 billion for disaster relief and prevention, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“Fort Worth residents have experienced delays, watched as roads have remained torn up and businesses have been negatively impacted,” Price said. “The local taxpayers deserve answers.”

Among the frustrations of those trying to secure funding for Panther Island is Fort Worth Rep. Kay Granger’s family connection to the project. Her son, J.D. Granger, receives a public salary to oversee it, creating poor optics in Washington, said a source familiar with the discussions about the project’s funding who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the situation.

Kay Granger is a powerful House appropriator who has worked to direct money back home to the project. Granger’s office and the Office of Management and Budget did not respond to requests for comment.

Proponents of the project also gripe that its online plans focus too heavily on Panther Island’s recreation elements, despite being approved for federal funding as a flood control project in the Army Corps Civil Works program.

“It doesn’t look like a flood control, it looks like economic development,” said the source.

This week Price called for a full audit of the project, as well as a potential change in scope to focus on the flood control elements.

The water district board will meet at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday to consider a review of the project.

Granger, on the other hand, insists the money will eventually come to continue the project as planned. She’s seeking her party’s top role on the House Appropriations Committee when GOP chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen retires at the end of the year.

Rep. Pete DeFazio, D-Oregon, one of the project’s biggest critics, is also in line for a promotion on the influential House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, if Democrats take control of the House this fall. DeFazio serves as the highest-ranking Democrat, and could serve as chairman of the full panel if Democrats flip 23 seats held by Republicans.

DeFazio sought to kill some of Panther Island’s recreation elements back in 2016 — by requiring the economic analysis that administration officials now cite among their reasons for not funding the project.

Emails obtained by a source and shared with the Star-Telegram show Fort Worth Rep. Marc Veasey, a fellow Democrat, worked to stop DeFazio’s provision at the time by testifying against it and hosting one-on-one meetings with fellow lawmakers.

Reached by phone this week Veasey again defended the economic analysis as unnecessary, citing a different study from the University of North Texas. Veasey said he’s not involved in lobbying the White House or Army Corps on a project designed to address flood risks in his district.

“Flood control is the main component, but as with any of these flood control projects that you see across the country, there’s an economic development [component],” said Veasey. “All of those things need to be worked out.”

“[Fort Worth has] lost Radio Shack, [and] XTO moved all of their jobs, virtually, down to Houston after Exxon bought the company,” he added. “We need to figure out how we’re going to make the city more attractive and bring more jobs in, and there needs to be confidence that taxpayers’ money is being fairly spent.”

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