Price’s push for federal funds comes at critical time for Panther Island

Mayor Betsy Price’s announcement of up to $250 million in federal funds in the pipeline, comes as at a critical time to help buoy the $1.17 billion Panther Island project.

At a budget workshop on July 31, Trinity River Vision Authority officials told board members of the agency that it would be necessary to tap local funds from a $250 million bond issue approved by voters in 2018. The money would be needed to cover the TRVA’s $36.6 million budget for 2020.

While it is unlikely that federal dollars will arrive quick enough to prevent tapping local bond funds, the prospect of federal funds again is welcome news for project supporters.

“This is good news,” U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R- Fort Worth, and the chief champion of the project. “I applaud Mayor Price for her success at the White House.”

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The Congresswoman’s son, J. D. Granger, the executive director of the TRVA, the agency tasked with managing the project, was equally supportive. The board is made up of representatives of the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County, the Tarrant Regional Water Board and other public agencies that are partners in the Panther Island project.

“The mayor’s announcement of a renewed confidence in the project and securing a $250 million commitment in federal funds is great news for Fort Worth,” J.D. Granger said. “As all expected, a community vision will take a community effort to complete.”

Price and U.S. Rep Roger Williams, whose District 25 stretches from the southern Tarrant County to Austin, met with President Trump’s action Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney last week to discuss obstacles that have prevented Panther Island from receiving federal funds

Despite Granger’s long involvement with the project, Price said she asked Williams arrange the July 23 meeting with Mulvaney.

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“Kay was aware of it but she was not involved,” Price said.

Williams told the Fort Worth Business Press that he has a close relationship with Mulvaney that made it easy for him to arrange the meeting.

“When (Price) asked, naturally I agreed to do it,” Williams said.

The outcome was a clearer path for the Fort Worth project to receive a maximum of $250 million to fund flood control improvements only. That amount would be about half the cost of the $526 million the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authorized Fort Worth to receive for the project.

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“We feel this is a step in the right direction,” Price said. “We don’t have a definite schedule as to when and how we will receive the money but we at least we know how much it could be.”

Williams cautioned that the funds are not guaranteed because “there is no free money.”

He said there are “some steps would have be taken” for the project to receive the federal funds, including splitting flood control protection away from the economic development improvements.

The $250 million would cover the cost of flood control protection, Price said.

“Let the private sector figure out the economic development side,” Williams said.

As envisioned, the Corps will dig a 1.5-mile bypass channel and reroute 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, including a San Antonio-style Riverwalk.

Williams said other steps might be necessary for the funds to be delivered. Among them could be a cost-benefit analysis, which is typically required for all major Corps funded projects.

J.D. Granger has said repeatedly that the cost-benefit analysis was not required when the project was authorized for $526 million in 2016.

Both the cost-benefit analysis and the economic development aspect of the project have been regarded as potential sticking points that have blocked federal funding for several years and left Panther Island off the Trump Administration’s budget for the Corps in 2020.

Last fall, Price said she met with Trump Administration officials, who told her the project had been overlooked because of the economic development component.

Concerned that the project could be in jeopardy, Price called for a comprehensive review to determine whether changes needed to better position Panther Island for federal funding.

The comprehensive review was recently completed by the Dallas-based consulting firm of Riveron. The report, which was complete on July10 was initially withheld but has since been released to the public.

The comprehensive review was conducted under the direction of the TRVA board and a public presentation of the findings and recommendation has been promised but is still pending.

The local partners in the Panther Island project have already spent about $324 million. The project has received about $65 million for various parts of the project, including three bridges that will connect Panther Island to adjacent areas of the city.

Price said a “public-private partnership” for the economic development aspects of the project would provide the only pathway for the $250 million would cover the cost of the channel and other flood control-related costs.

The comprehensive review suggests that the city of Fort Worth create a separate non-profit organization to handle economic development, including building development.

Price said she wasn’t ready to comment on any aspect of the Riveron report until the consultants officially present their findings.

Presentations of the report are expected this month for the TRVA board and the City Council, she said.

TRWD Executive Director Jim Oliver has said he is opposed to a recommendation in the report that the functions of J.D. Granger be split apart. Riveron recommends that Granger continue to manage flood control improvements but the real estate development be spun off into a nonprofit organization.

“If we spinoff the real estate, it should be our responsibility,” Oliver said in an impromptu news conference after the TRWD meeting. “This is water district land and if anyone should set up a 501c3 (nonprofit), it should be us.”

The TRVA is a subsidiary of the TRWD.

The Riveron report is critical of TRVA management of the Panther Island project, citing “insufficient operational oversight and transparency” and “unclear financial and management reporting.”

Other key findings include unclear projections of revenue and expenditures as well as inconsistent views on goals and objectives and unclear understanding of roles and mission.

Lack of robust policies, procedures and transparency into TRVA operations, specifically with respect to project and change management, hiring, promotion, performance management, decisioning, roles and responsibilities,” the report states.

And further, “complicated and opaque governance, project management, organizational and reporting structure between and within the TRWD and TRVA, and among project participants.”

Tapping the $250 million in bond money has been a sticking point because it is tied to raising the repayment period for the bond debt by 10 years, from 40 to 50 years.

Only the City Council can raise the debt repayment period but the TRWD can issue the debt.

Price has she was unwilling to consider extending the debt repayment period until after the comprehensive review was complete and there was a clearer understanding that federal funding would be available.