Michael Ryan

As Fort Worth is all-in on Panther Island, what are our odds on this billion-dollar bet?

Long before I listened to talk of Panther Island, I watched Gilligan’s Island extensively. I’m now an expert on fabricated islands.

I’ve listened to the pros and cons of Fort Worth’s Panther Island project since arriving here last October. For a lot of it, I’ve felt a little like Gilligan — who, when caught in the middle of two other people’s argument, would alternatively take both sides.

One close observer didn’t help when, asked if Panther Island is a flood control or economic development project, he replied “Yes.”

The $1.16 billion plan to cut a bypass channel for the Trinity River north of downtown to reduce the chance of catastrophic flooding would also, as a happy byproduct, create an 800-acre, ripe-for-development man-made island surrounded by riverfront and crossed by canals.

Opponents say the project has deviated too much from flood control, that it’s become too expensive, that the funding is anything but certain, and that it’s been poorly managed.

Supporters are supremely confident in the project, in vast public support for it as expressed in a $250 million 2018 bond election, and in the prospect of roughly half the money coming from Washington, D.C.

I respect both sides. I have friends on both sides. And both sides make good points.

But on balance — and subject to an upcoming independent review of the project’s management — I have to say I hope they can pull this off, because it’s incredibly exciting.

And let’s face it: They need to pull it off. Desperately. With more than $300 million expended, three massive bridges in the works and hundreds of thousands of tons of dirt turned, treated and hauled, if the Panther Island project were a poker game, Fort Worth has already gone all-in.

The only question now is, how strong is our hand?

Congress gave the project its seal of approval in 2016, but funding hit the rocks last year in a White House skeptical of the lack of a cost-benefit analysis.

When asked what happens if some $500 million isn’t forthcoming from Washington, Trinity River Vision Authority executive director J.D. Granger simply says it will be. He says he’s assured of it by members of Congress — who happen to include his mother, Kay Granger. And last September, Granger says he briefed U.S. Secretary of the Army Mark Esper and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James — and they are enthusiastic about what they see as an important flood control project.

Further, Granger says, it’s a public safety project — and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers never fails to complete public safety projects.

When you listen to Granger and Trinity River director of communications Matt Oliver — as some 150,000 have, in presentations over the past dozen years — other flood control measures sound inadequate.

Perhaps most reassuring is a statement last October by Corps spokesman Clay Church, who said, “It is the intention of (The Corps) to eventually complete all projects for which construction has begun.”

And look what the project has already done. It’s remediated some 82 environmental sites, removing 380,000 tons of hazardous material from soil that once was home to foundries, a refinery, auto scrap yard, a battery reclamation center, a Styrofoam plant and a police firing range.

A Fort Worth that’s growing faster than a weed didn’t need all that nasty stuff on the fringe of downtown.

It’s also intriguing to watch Granger’s excitement at the mere prospect of repurposing vintage bricks, removed from the Stockyards area and otherwise headed for scrap, to one day line walkways on Panther Island.

The scope of the impending review of project management was being discussed this week with the one unidentified company who bid on the work. Among other matters, the review should look at the city’s prospects for actually getting the federal money; the alternatives if it doesn’t; whether a cost-benefit study is truly required; and how we got to where we are and where we go from here.

Where we are is sitting at the poker table with a half-billion bet showing — and perhaps past the point of no return.

Earlier in this column I wrote of Panther Island and Gilligan’s Island being “fabricated.” But I meant it in both senses of the word. Gilligan’s Island was fictional. But Fort Worth’s Panther Island could be fabricated in the manufacturing sense.

I remember pulling hard for the people on Gilligan’s Island. I’m pulling for the folks of Panther Island — the people of Fort Worth — even harder.

The Star’s Michael Ryan, a Kansas City native, is an award-winning editorial writer and columnist and a veteran reporter, having covered law enforcement, courts, politics and more. His opinion writing has led him to conclude that freedom, civics, civility and individual responsibility are the most important issues of the day.
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