Crossing the bridge Trinity Uptown enters major phase as $81.9 million project begins; critics raise concerns about ‘bridges to nowhere’

Jack Z. Smith Special Projects Reporter Fort Worth Business Press

Construction is expected to begin within several months on three new bridges that are signature elements of the controversial Trinity Uptown project on the north edge of downtown. Project officials say the bridges will be another major step toward Uptown’s goal of transforming a shabby old 800-acre industrial area into an alluring new residential and commercial development featuring 12 miles of urban waterfront. Critics say, however, that the new Henderson Street, White Settlement Road and North Main Street bridges could become “bridges to nowhere” – sitting interminably over dry land – if federal funding isn’t forthcoming for a 1.6-mile bypass channel of the Trinity River that the bridges are supposed to span. Local taxpayers could be forced to fork over more money for Uptown, a massive $909.9 million flood-control and economic development project, if Uncle Sam doesn’t come through with additional appropriations for the bypass channel and other Uptown project expenditures for which hundreds of millions of federal dollars are being sought, the critics add.

J.D. Granger, executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority (TRVA), which coordinates Uptown activities, said the project thus far has been occupied with unglamorous tasks such as land acquisition and relocation of utility lines. But the looming focus on the bridges is providing an adrenalin jolt. Construction bids are to be opened in early May, a contract is to be awarded a few weeks later and construction is expected to begin in August or September. The prospect of entering the “vertical construction” stage, with the bridges going up as visible evidence of the project’s progress, is “very exciting,” Granger said in an interview with the Fort Worth Business Press. The estimated cost for the three bridges’ design, construction and inspections is $81.9 million, according to the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD), a major Uptown participant. When related expenses such as land purchase, business relocations and demolition are added, the price tag rises to $110.1 million. Design of bridges praised Mark Rauscher, senior capital programs manager for the city of Fort Worth, said the new bridges’ V-shaped pier design is cost-efficient, functional and visually appealing. The piers are supporting structures under the bridge. Rauscher said the design basically reduces from eight to four the sets of piers needed to penetrate the water channel below each bridge. Having fewer piers increases water flow and capacity, while reducing potential problems with obstructions such as debris coming down the channel, he said. Fort Worth-based Freese and Nichols led the overall project design and is the engineer of record. Rosales + Partners of Boston, led by prominent architect Miguel Rosales, focused on the bridges’ architectural design. “From the beginning, we’ve been very pleased with the bridge design and feel that Miguel Rosales and his team did a great job,” Rauscher said of the four-lane bridges, which will also have bike lanes and 10-foot-wide pedestrian walkways on each side. In 2009, the TRVA scrapped a more expensive bridge design by noted Canadian architect Bing Thom, which saved an estimated $45 million.

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The bridges are targeted for completion in mid-2017. “Once those bridges are done, we’re going to remove a lot of the construction operations,” along with accompanying traffic interruptions, Granger said. That will make the Uptown area “primed for growth” and poised for private developers to move in, he said. Residential development is expected first, followed by commercial development such as retail stores, restaurants and office buildings. When the Uptown project is finished, which is scheduled for 2023, the 800-acre area will be largely surrounded by water as a result of the bypass channel and a 33-acre urban lake to be formed at the confluence of the West and Clear forks of the Trinity River. The TRVA has also referred to the site Panther Island. Some project backers have said the area eventually could become a second downtown.

J.D. Granger confident Granger expressed confidence that sufficient funding will be available for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to promptly begin building the bypass channel after the three bridges are built. The Corps “is under final design right now for the channel,” Granger said, “and as long as the design process ends before they finish the bridges, we do anticipate going directly into construction of the bypass channel.” He added that there is some flexibility in the timetable for constructing the channel and contracting for the work, depending on how quickly funding can be secured. The Uptown project, which the Corps calls its Central City Project, also calls for major improvements to Gateway Park in East Fort Worth, Trinity River ecosystem restoration and the creation of “valley storage areas” to help contain floodwaters during periods of heavy rain.

Uptown critics see risk The TRVA that Granger heads is a unit of the TRWD, which also supplies most of Tarrant County’s raw water, oversees the local Trinity River levee system and supports recreational and environmental activities along the river. TRWD board member Mary Kelleher, who was elected in a heated race in 2013, has been a critic of the Uptown project. In an email response to Business Press questions for this article, Kelleher said she is “very concerned about Fort Worth’s decision to move ahead with building these bridges without funding certainty. In my opinion, it’s an unnecessary financial risk for taxpayers.” Another Uptown critic is Don Woodard, a Fort Worth insurance executive who has long been involved in political and civic issues. Woodard isn’t nearly as optimistic as Granger that big federal appropriations will materialize for the project. “I don’t think anybody can foresee what might happen,” Woodard told the Business Press. “It’s a terrible risk they’re taking. … We’ll be the laughingstock of creation if we don’t get the money.” Woodard said that if the three new bridges become “bridges to nowhere” because of lack of federal funding for the bypass channel, then Dallas, “with their big fancy bridge [the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge], will be laughing at us.” If federal appropriations fall well short of expectations, local residents might have to pick up the tab that could total hundreds of millions of dollars, Woodard said.

Regardless of the bypass channel’s funding status, the new bridges won’t be “bridges to nowhere,” Granger said, because “the bridges are going someplace, actually connecting downtown to the North Side.” An extension of White Settlement Road on the north edge of downtown will provide a new connection to North Main Street and the city’s North Side, while the new White Settlement Road bridge and Henderson Street bridge will go over existing at-grade railroad crossings, so motorists no longer will have to wait for trains there, Granger said. Two existing bridges north of downtown that go over the West and Clear forks of the Trinity will remain in use, he added.

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Roundabout planned In conjunction with the bridges project, a modern roundabout will be created at a newly aligned intersection of White Settlement Road and Henderson Street (which becomes Jacksboro Highway as it goes north from downtown). The roundabout, devoid of traffic lights, will be a compact circular intersection in which traffic flows counterclockwise around a center island that will include a public art sculpture. The roundabout, to be completed before the bridges are finished, will cost an estimated $2.2 million. It is expected to improve traffic flow and encourage urban development of structures perhaps three to five stories high in the immediate area.

Corps funding awaited The Uptown budget outline calls for roughly half the project’s $909.9 million cost to be paid with federal money, including $411.6 million for the Corps of Engineers. But the Corps has been authorized only $110 million and only $28.7 million actually has been appropriated, said Gail Hicks, the Corps manager for the project. Asked when more federal money might be appropriated, Hicks said she doesn’t “have an answer to that because that depends on Congress.” But she said the Corps’ “current schedule” still calls for it to begin construction of the bypass channel in the 2017 fiscal year “after the [three new] bridges are up.”

The projected cost for building the channel is $78.7 million, with $29 million more for amenities, for a total of $107.7 million. As currently planned, the Corps would bear the construction cost and the amenities would be paid for with tax revenues from the Trinity River Vision TIF, a Tax Increment Financing district with participants including the TRWD, Fort Worth, Tarrant County, Tarrant County Hospital District and Tarrant County College District. Proposed amenities include pedestrian walkways and bridges, extensive landscaping, benches, water fountains, irrigation systems, accessibility ramps and locations for kayak and canoe launches to ensure a “really beautiful” waterfront and “a great live-work-play environment,” Granger has said previously.

Bridges before channel? While critics question the plan to build the bridges first, Hicks said it will be “much cheaper” and less complicated to build the bridges “in the dry,” rather than constructing them over a channel filled with water. Rauscher, the Fort Worth official, agreed that it’s easier to build the bridges first. In addition, he said, if the channel were in place before the bridges were built, “that would now be considered waters of the U.S. and that opens up a can of worms as far as getting permits from the federal government,” thereby creating “an extra step that you’ve got to go through.” During construction of the bridges, the Corps will install piers “that will help support the future east side of the bypass channel,” Rauscher said. The piers can be installed much more easily before the bridges are put in and that won’t significantly slow construction of the bridges, he said. The Corps already has money for the pier installations, which will cost an estimated $1 million to $5 million. The Texas Department of Transportation is soliciting bids for construction of the bridges. In an effort to save money and boost efficiency, a single bidder will be selected to build all three bridges.

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Kay Granger “confident” on funding Congress authorized the Uptown project under a law passed in 2004. Its biggest backer in Washington, D.C., is Rep. Kay Granger, former Fort Worth mayor and mother of J.D. Granger. Steve Dutton, an aide to the congresswoman, said that she remains confident Uptown “will receive additional federal funding” and that she will “advocate for the project as the appropriations process continues throughout the year.” Granger is on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. The Uptown project has received only $58.7 million in total federal funding thus far, according to Sandy Newby, finance director for the TRWD.

Local contributions, separate from the Trinity River Vision TIF funding, include $64.4 million from the TRWD, $26.6 million from the city of Fort Worth and $11 million from Tarrant County. In 2010, the TRWD agreed to lend the TIF money for Uptown on an as-needed and interest-free basis, with the TRWD to be paid back from TIF revenues, which are expected to grow appreciably in coming years as property valuations rise. The agreement says the loan balance can never exceed $226 million and the total amount that the TRWD can lend the TIF is capped at $320 million. As of Jan. 31, the TRWD had lent the project $68.6 million and had been paid back $13.4 million from TIF revenues, leaving $55.2 million owed to TRWD.

Economic benefits touted Uptown backers say the project could trigger the eventual creation of up to 10,000 new residential units and 3 million square feet of commercial development just north of downtown. In 2005, the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas estimated that, by 2045, business development fostered by the Uptown project would increase economic activity in Tarrant County by more than $1.6 billion annually (expressed in 2005 dollars) and support more than 16,000 direct and indirect jobs. TRWD Board President Vic Henderson said the bridges project excites him because “we’re going to start seeing something come out of the ground.” He expressed confidence that the Corps will receive funding for the bypass channel. Once the bridges are completed, the Uptown project will be far enough along that it should have improved chances of getting more federal money, especially since it has a strong flood-control component, Henderson said. Depending on the pace of federal funding, project officials can “accelerate or decelerate the rate at which we move ahead” on the project, he said. “I firmly believe this project will be completed,” Henderson said of the $909.9 million undertaking.