If Panther Island finally gets back on track with federal money, here’s whom we should thank

Is a new era dawning for the Panther Island project?

Over the last couple of months, things have looked dire for Fort Worth’s ambitious effort to redirect the Trinity River and create an urban island. It was again left out of federal budget plans. Its coordinating agency was the subject of a tough internal review that questioned its management structure, communication and public perception. And the handling of that report brought the agency in for criticism about its seeming unwillingness to be transparent.

But officials leading the effort are cautiously optimistic that, at a minimum, enough federal money will arrive soon to keep the project moving ahead — and with it, a possible resolution of what future funding will look like so tough decisions, if needed, can be made.

If the project’s prognosis in Washington has improved, give Mayor Betsy Price a healthy portion of the credit.

As talk surrounded the development of choice land near downtown, with visions of condos and retail, federal officials may have wondered whether spending Army Corps of Engineers money to dig bypass channels was more about economics than flood protection.

Credit to Price and Williams

Price has pushed to put the focus back where it belongs. To help move the ball, Price enlisted the help of childhood friend Rep. Roger Williams, a Fort Worth veteran who these days represents a district that sprawls through much of Central Texas. Williams helped Price get the meeting with White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney that may finally shake the authorized funds loose.

The project’s coordinators at the Trinity River Vision Authority seem to have recognized the problem, too. Leaders say they’ve been emphasizing to White House budget officials that the city needs the Trinity River bypass channel to avoid the worst possible flooding scenario.

Federal officials now seem convinced that Panther Island is “a flood control project with economic development attributes,” said Jim Oliver, who, as general manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District, is the main supervisor over the project. “We got that out of the way. What changed their mind, I don’t know.”

It’s unclear how much money might arrive, or when, and it’s still possible the White House will say no. But Oliver said this week that $50 million would be enough to get engineering plans in place and let the Corps prepare to dig he first section of the channel, once three bridges designed to connect to the island are complete.

Williams suggested up to $250 million could be on the way. That sounds promising, but the project originally called for more than $500 million in federal funding, and Oliver said it will take no less to finish the bypass channel. We’ve already seen delays, and more could be coming.

The Army Corps of Engineers — not the city, the Trinity River Vision Authority or the water board — will handle the contracts to create the channel. But to inspire confidence and ensure the project sees its full potential, the management issues identified in a consultant’s review of the Trinity board and its operations must be fixed.

The report was frank about the communication problems that have plagued the project, along with a complicated structure that led to a lack of clarity on fiscal issues and risk management deficiencies. Oliver contends the consultants’ concerns are overstated, but he agrees that messaging has been a problem.

Taxpayers are already on the hook

Price pushed for the review to be done — and for its findings to be made public. She understands that local taxpayers have invested hundreds of millions already and need to see more for it than bridges over dry land.

The Trinity board needs to seriously consider the consultant’s restructuring recommendations, including whether it makes sense to spin off a new nonprofit entity to handle it. We’re reluctant to see another layer of bureaucracy added, unless clear lines of authority are established, as the consultants suggest.

Even if the feds cut a check tomorrow, we’re still a year or more away from dirt moving on the channel, and several years from anything we can call completion. It’s important that elected officials, including Price and the board members who oversee the water district, keep the pressure on to ensure improved management and clear communication.

Signs of hope are finally there, but as Price herself might say, hope is not a strategy. The last thing Fort Worth needs with Panther Island is another round of one step forward, two steps back.

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