It’s a short jaunt from boon to boondoggle. And no bridge is necessary.
Still, while many in Fort Worth are understandably condemning Panther Island as Fantasy Island, we all should hope that’s not the case. The notion of re-routing the Trinity River and creating a kind of island for riverfront development on downtown’s northern edge — 800 acres of former industrial space that is largely forlorn today — is a tantalizing idea. Even many who now question the viability of the project would love to see it come about.
Fourteen years after its rollout — and just months after this year’s public vote of confidence, in the passage of a local $250 million bond referendum — the $1.16 billion vision has hit a huge sandbar: half a billion in federal funding, approved by Congress in 2016 and thought to be in the bank, was not included in the Trump administration’s current spending plans or Army Corps of Engineers budget.
Since that revelation, several high-profile officials, including Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, have suggested scaling back the project and even auditing the Trinity River Vision Authority overseeing it.
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It’s important that in our grand vision we don’t lose sight of the fact that the genesis and primary purpose of the Panther Island project is flood control. The Trinity River authority’s own materials tout the need to shore up the 1960s-era levees and bolster them with the “1.5-mile bypass channel, three new flood gates, expanded storm water valley storage opportunities and a new dam.”
While it’s an enticing byproduct that we’d be creating “12 miles of publicly accessible waterfront consisting of a river promenade, riverwalk system and a 30-acre town lake as its centerpiece,” and “doubling the size of downtown,” the main mission is to protect the downtown that we already have.
We would encourage the Trinity River authority to look at an audit not as a rebuke, but as welcome scrutiny. Many of us want to believe in this project, and a successful financial review of it would go a long way toward restoring that belief.
The Trump administration’s decision to withhold funding for the project should be seen as the reasonable, prudent challenge that it is: The feds appear to want an economic study proving the project’s need. This is a hurdle we should want all government projects to clear.
Finger-pointing and recriminations won’t get us anywhere, or get those already-under-construction Panther Island bridges off the ground.
Our task is clear, even if our vision isn’t: It’s time to buttress the audacious Panther Island plans with a persuasive cost-benefit analysis, and for the project’s practicality to be tested by the sunlight of a financial review, the scope of which is now being drawn up. The review should include an assessment of the project’s governing structure — and more importantly, whether federal money really can be expected.
Not all tension is bad, and the current questions and concerns over Panther Island will either demonstrate its endurance or protect the public from future failure.
Just as a bridge is stress-tested, the strength of Panther Island must be weighed.