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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Local partners expected to pony up $5M as part of $20M Panther Island bridge overruns

A plan moving forward to cover the $20 million cost overruns of the three Panther Island bridges will require local partners in the $1.17 billion project to ante up $5 million.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments’ Regional Transportation Council, the governing body for North Texas transportation projects, is expected to vote on the the plan on March 12. A public meeting on March 9 is an opportunity for citizens to comment on the proposal.

Michael Morris, director of transportation for the Council of Governments, proposed that the Regional Transportation Council reimburse the Texas Department of Transportation for the $19.4 million the agency paid the contractor, Sterling Construction of Houston, for cost overruns, largely due to design challenges.

TxDOT officials paid the contractor in December, records show, for the cost overruns. Bridge construction, which has dragged on beyond the original completion date of 2018, has been riddled with delays, a spokesman for the contractor has said repeatedly.

Morris told the Fort Worth City Council last month that the cost of the bridges has escalated by $19.4 million from $69.9 million to $89.3 million.

The Panther Island project partners, which include Tarrant County and the Tarrant Regional Water District along with the city of Fort Worth, have steadfastly maintained that the cost of the bridges was fully covered and that no extra payments would be made until the bridge construction was complete.

The city of Fort Worth and TxDOT have shared oversight of the bridges since two of the bridges, North Main and Henderson, are part of the state highway system. White Settlement Road is a city street.

“TxDOT paid their contractor to resolve all issues and expedite completion of the bridges,” Morris stated in an email. “I publicly thanked them for that.”

But Morris said the RTC is being asked to cover $20 million to cover “aggregate impact of all issues to complete the bridges.”

Morris said the staff recommendation to cover the $20 million is a $15 million grant and $5 million from the local partners to be repaid over 10 years. The upfront money will come from a federal transportation block grant and the state.

The local agencies’ $5 million share will be included in a loan agreement and will be approved along with the funding request by the RTC.

The Surface Transportation Technical Committee, a group of 80 members who are mostly city engineers as well as technical staffers from the area, endorsed the plan during a meeting on Feb. 28.

The payment for overruns comes at a critical time for the Panther Island project as the coordinating agency, the Trinity River Vision Authority, has run out of money and is issueing commercial paper bonds to pay critical bills.

The partnering agencies were hoping for about $10 million in a federal appropriation through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to go toward designing the channel on the Trinity River north of downtown Fort Worth to replace old levees and create Panther Island.

Instead, the partners learned early last month that only $1.5 million was allocated, to be matched with local money for a feasibility study. The details of that study have yet to be released but the study could take several years to complete.

The local partners have invested about $330 million in the Panther Island project and the Army Corps has green-lighted spending $526 million in federal funds on it.

The project has received about $68 million in federal funds so far but none in the past three years.

The project has become a central part of the biting primary battle between longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Kay Granger and challenger Chris Putnam, a wealthy businessman and conservative activist from Colleyville.

Granger has been the champion of this project all along and her role as senior ranking member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee provides a perfect perch to shepherd a massive development such as this.

“The Panther Island project is an unmitigated disaster,” said Karin Dyer, campaign manager for Putnam. “Fourteen years and $400 million later, it is still in the design phase with three broken bridges standing on dry ground, and the Trump administration has cut off funding. We’ve lost businesses and people have lost their homes and property to eminent domain.”

Granger’s campaign did not provide a comment.

Businesses along White Settlement Road have been especially impacted since there is no work-around detour to connect that road to downtown Fort Worth. It is expected to be the first of the three bridges to be completed late this year, according to the most recent schedule.

The Henderson and North Main Street bridges are expected to be finished by the end of 2021.

Mayor Betsy Price has been extremely outspoken about bridge construction delays.

“If they’re not (completed on time) my big boot is going to be on somebody’s backside,” she remarked during her Feb. 28 State of the City address.

She also announced that efforts are underway to explore a public/private partnership to develop the area designated as Panther Island.

Morris has said he expected from the start that the bridges would cost about $90 million due to the complex and unique design that is being carried out for the first time.

The March 9 public meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the Council of Governments office, 616 Six Flags Dr., Arlington. The RTC meeting will be at 1 p.m. March 12 at the same location.

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