Panther Island review: $1.16B project to be examined by consulting firm

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A Dallas-based consulting firm was awarded a $466,222 contract April 10 to conduct a comprehensive review of the ambitious Panther Island project, which will help determine the issues contributing to the project’s failure to receive critical federal funds for the past several years.

The Trinity River Vision Authority board awarded the contract to Riveron Consulting, a national consulting firm that is partnering with Burns and McDonnell, a nationally recognized engineering firm, to examine all aspects of the $1.16 billion Panther Island project, also known as the Central City Project.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authorized the project in 2016, giving its endorsement for federal funding of $526 million. But to date, the project has only been appropriated about $60 million.

A spokesman for the Corps confirmed earlier this month that the Trump administration’s 2020 list of priorities for flood control and water projects did not include the Fort Worth project.

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Should Congress fail to include Panther Island in its appropriations legislation, this would be the fourth consecutive time that the project has not been funded at the federal level.

The TRVA board has been negotiating with Riveron, the only bidder for the contract to conduct the comprehensive review, to reduce the cost from the firm’s original proposal of about $800,000.

The cost of the review could be even lower if all the documents are in order for the review, individuals are readily available for interviews, if engineering work doesn’t need to be revisited and the review can wrap quicker than the allotted three months, according to Riveron executive Kevin Ruiz.

The TRVA board did not initially set a contract amount for the review but left it up to bidders to determine how much it should cost based on the scope of the work.

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The review will examine all aspects of the Panther Island project, including looking at whether the absence of an economic analysis has hampered the project’s ability to attract federal funds.

The board agreed to move ahead with the review despite a worsening financial situation as local funds are running out.

“At the next meeting or shortly afterwards, we have to come together to have a conversation about how we’re going to move forward,” said TRVA board President G.K. Maenius, who is also the Tarrant County administrator. “As a board, we have to look at what we can do with our money so we don’t slow the project down.”

The TRVA has about $10 million left to last through the end of the fiscal year. About $2.9 million was spent during March, according to Sandy Newby, finance director of the Tarrant Regional Water District, the parent agency of the TRVA.

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About $324 million in local tax money has already been spent on the project, including a $200 loan from the TRWD that is being stretched through to keep the project solvent.

The TRVA’s budget includes $26 million in federal funding in 2020 and another $35 million in federal dollars for 2021.

The project involves digging a 1.5-mile bypass channel on the Trinity River north of the Tarrant County Courthouse. That channel would add flood control protection as well as carve out an 800-acre center island, which would create waterfront economic development opportunities.

The economic development aspect has been a sticking point of the project and is a key factor to be examined in the comprehensive review.

“We may have to look at issuing some commercial paper,” said TRWD Executive Director Jim Oliver. The TRVA is also considering tapping the $250 million approved by TRWD voters a year ago.

Hand-in-hand with the bond issue would be adding 10 years to the repayment period of the tax increment finance district that supports the project.

Only the City Council can extend the TIF payment but council members and Mayor Betsy Price have expressed reluctance to extend the TIF until the comprehensive review is complete.

Adding to TRVA’s financial woes could be extra cost for the three bridges that will span the channel that will create the 800-acre Panther Island.

The board discussed the bridges at the April 10 meeting after Oliver mentioned that the rumors were circulating that the cost of the bridges was ballooning and completion was being delayed.

While the project is joint endeavor between the TRVA, TRWD, the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County, the Corps and other partners, the city and the Texas Department of Transportation have management responsibility for the bridges.

A setback in construction of the bridges occurred in 2016, as a result of a “malfunction of design,” an official with TxDOT announced at that time.

Although work shifted to other areas while the design snafu was being remedied, the bridges failed to be completed on time.

The North Main bridge should have been completed on Oct. 24, 2017, the White Settlement bridge on Jan. 2, 2018, and the Henderson Street bridge on May 14, 2018, officials noted on April 10.

“A lot has happened,” Doug Rademaker, senior capital projects officer for the city, told the board, pointing to recent progress with pouring cement for the V-pier bridge support structures and removing the molds.

In February, TxDOT officials told the TRWD board that the bridges are anticipated to be completed on a staggered schedule between 2020 and 2021.

Rademaker acknowledged that the bridge contractor, Sterling Construction Co., a publically-traded company from Houston, has a claim pending to add 221 days to the contract.

TxDOT officials are reviewing the claim, to determine whether and how much extra money the contractor should receive or if assessed fees should offset at least some of the claim, he said.

TxDOT officials are expected to report to the TRVA board on the matter in May, according to city officials.

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