Politics & Government

Fort Worth’s water project is finally on the verge of funding

Artist drawings of the Panther Island bridges feature a signature V-pier structure.
Artist drawings of the Panther Island bridges feature a signature V-pier structure. Freese and Nichols, Inc.

The Trinity River Vision project, years in the works, which backers say will transform Fort Worth, is finally close to getting federal funding, though Congress has only a limited number of weeks to finish its work this year.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, has been the lead booster for the Trinity River Vision, a flood control/economic development project that would divert the Trinity River and create an urban lake and waterfront in northern Fort Worth. Her son J.D. Granger is the executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority.

I feel wonderful about the project. I never felt better about it.

Rep. Kay Granger

Granger, a former mayor of the city “where the West begins,” has, after nearly 20 years as a member of the House of Representatives, helped smooth the way for Congress to approve about $520 million in federal funds from the Army Corps of Engineers for the Fort Worth project. It is estimated that the completed cost, which includes nonfederal funding, will be nearly $1 billion.

“It’s now part of the Water Resources Development Act for the Senate and the House,” Granger said in an interview.

“The only problem we have is the time we have left,” she added, since Congress, which is on recess and will return in September, will be in session for only a few weeks before the November elections. Observers anticipate that a post-election session would also be brief. And whatever legislation does not get approved by the end of the 114th Congress in December will have to be restarted in the next Congress.

It is a milestone for Granger to have the Trinity Vision project – which is known as Central City by the Army Corps of Engineers – included in the large water projects bill. The authorization is crucial because it gives an imprimatur to the project for federal funding and ensures it is part of the president’s budget.

At this point, the WRDA bill (commonly pronounced “WORD-a”) has been approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The water projects bill, usually bipartisan and noncontroversial, is waiting to be voted on by the full House and Senate.

In a statement to McClatchy, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., said lawmakers were trying to get WRDA bills passed every two years to reduce the backlog of projects: “The Army Corps was instructed to provide a list of projects to Congress for consideration in the next WRDA authorization process. That is what we are doing this year – clearing a backlog of projects, to include the Trinity River project, so we can proactively protect communities from disastrous floodwaters and modernize our nation’s ports and waterways.”

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said in a statement provided to McClatchy in July, “The further we fall behind in addressing these needs, the more difficult and expensive it becomes to move goods into, out of and across the country, and the less competitive we become globally.”

There are some differences between the House and Senate bills in funding the Trinity Vision project – the House bill authorizes $526.5 million and the Senate $520 million – and the Senate bill stipulates that the assistant secretary of the army for civil works certify that the project meets cost-benefit criteria.

But Granger, who is the chairwoman of a key subcommittee of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, is confident the project is moving forward. Differences in the bills, said her spokesman Jim Specht, would be worked out in a conference between the House and Senate.

So far the project has received $28.75 million from the Army Corps of Engineers, mostly through earmarks – designated funding in legislation – until GOP leaders ended the practice in 2010. “With the earmark changes, it became much more difficult,” said Granger. The project also has received $23 million in federal transportation spending, according to her office.

Granger had inserted authorizing language in an appropriations bill in the early 2000s, but because it was not on an authorization bill it was never included in the president’s budget.

But $218.8 million in local and state funding has moved the project forward. Construction is underway on three bridges that will cross a 1.8-mile bypass channel that will be constructed with federal funds.

Granger has never wavered from her vision: “One of the things that drove this is we want people to experience the river,” she said.

There are still critics. “We’ve been critical of this project in the past,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group. “This is an economic development project masquerading as a flood damage reduction project.”

Matt Oliver, spokesman for the Trinity River Vision Authority, acknowledged in an interview that “the project creates 12 miles of developable waterfront,” with recreational aspects like kayaking. But, he said, the importance of the project is centered on flood control.