Should we spend more on Panther Island?

Trinity River bridges taking shape

Fort Worth's signature V-shaped bridges are under construction and will eventually span the expanded river channel for the Trinity River Vision project
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Fort Worth's signature V-shaped bridges are under construction and will eventually span the expanded river channel for the Trinity River Vision project

For more than a decade this Editorial Board has largely supported the Trinity River Vision project which will reroute Trinity tributaries to create Panther Island.

We've stuck by it while it more than doubled in size and more than tripled in cost from $435 million in 2005 to become the $1.16 billion behemoth it is today.

We're sticking with the project again as one of its biggest sources for financing, the Tarrant Regional Water District, asks voters on May 5 to approve a $250 million bond or loan to keep it going.

But we're concerned about the escalating cost and want a tighter leash on expenditures.

The price tag jumped over the $1 billion mark after the district discovered post-Hurricane Katrina levee protection guidelines mean it will cost more to put in utilities. Local officials already had underestimated the cost of putting in those water and sewer lines. Then came the $95 million the water district thought the federal government would pick up, but didn't.

We know plans change. Prices go up. But the district must know the spiraling costs are trying everyone's patience.

So, with our lukewarm support for this bond, we want the Tarrant Water District to do the following: every time you plan to sell some of these bonds — in other words borrow some of the money — tell citizens before the bond sale exactly how you will spend those dollars and what the timetable is for doing that. Transparency will go a long way in reassuring the public expenses are under control.

We want to support this project which could transform our city.

Panther Island — with its 800-acre man-made island, fancy bridges and sparkling town lake — hopes to take an old industrial area north of Fort Worth’s downtown and transform it into a bustling urban waterfront similar to the San Antonio Riverwalk.

But the project just keeps getting bigger.

The district is working on it with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In addition to land development, Panther Island is a flood control project that re-channels 1.5 miles of the Trinity River. About 10 years ago, the project expanded in scope, and price, when it took in 1,000 acres on the city's east side as a place to store flood water.

Now, to finish it all by 2028, the district says it needs more money.

The $250 million in proposed bonds on the ballot would be paid off by property owners who will directly benefit from the improvements through a tax increment financing district, or TIF. As the property becomes more valuable within TIF boundaries, the increased tax revenue would be used to pay off the bonds. The TIF revenue is also paying for a separate $200 million loan the district made to Panther Island.

District officials say there will be more than enough money to pay off the bonds and the loan since land prices are soaring. Property that was selling for 50 cents a square foot more than a decade ago is now going for $21 and more.

We hope so. But the district — which has done a good job providing water and flood control for decades — must apply that same discipline to building Panther Island. It must be upfront with taxpayers each step of the way.

Panther Island's potential is monumental. Fort Worth has an opportunity to create a community within a community, to transform abandoned weedy lots and an old industrial area into a waterfront district with canals, parks, homes and businesses.

The return is something we want to look back on in 20 years and say, gee we're glad we did this.

With that dream in mind the Star-Telegram Editorial Board cautiously recommends voters approve the $250 million bond proposal, identified on the ballot as Tarrant Regional Water District, Proposition A.