Jack Z. Smith Special Projects Reporter
One of the more controversial aspects of Fort Worth’s Trinity Uptown project is simply its price tag. The cost for the massive public infrastructure project potentially could top a billion dollars if costs run higher than expected. The latest cost estimate, $909.9 million, was made in 2009 by the Freese and Nichols engineering firm for the Trinity River Vision Authority (TRVA), which coordinates project activities.
That’s a staggering jump of $474.9 million beyond an estimate of $435 million in 2005 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which heads the project. But there’s more to the story, insists TRVA Executive Director J.D. Granger, in defending the Uptown project. It aims to enhance flood protection and transform a shabby 800-acre industrial area just north of downtown into an alluring residential and commercial waterfront development that would add new muscle to the city’s tax base and provide another shining example of central-city redevelopment.
Granger said 63 percent of the increase between the two cost estimates, or just under $300 million, results from greatly expanding the project’s scope and including new calculations for “escalation” in costs, including inflation. The 2005 estimate, expressed in 2005 dollars, did not include an inflation component. The project, which has had substantial delays, is now targeted for completion in 2023. Since the $435 million estimate was made, the project has been expanded to include $94 million for extensive recreational, flood control and ecosystem improvements in sprawling Gateway Park and other stretches of the Trinity River in East Fort Worth, Granger said.
The cost-escalation adjustments total $205.5 million, he said. That includes $45.5 million for project activities from 2005 to 2009, when the $909.9 million estimate was finalized. An additional $160 million in escalation is for 2009 to the project’s completion. Expressed in current 2013 dollars, the $909.9 million project cost would be $776.9 million, or $133 million less, the TRVA said. The Gateway Park area spending and the cost-escalation adjustments are just two of seven reasons cited by Granger for the huge jump in the Uptown project cost. Here are the other five reasons and the added costs projected for each: $63 million in higher costs for land and property acquisitions in the 800-acre redevelopment area. He said values were inflated considerably by the Barnett Shale natural gas boom, which strengthened the Fort Worth economy and made old industrial sites such as those on the Near North Side more valuable as potential locations for drilling pad sites or other gas infrastructure. $50 million in increased costs for relocating and installing new utility lines – such as water and sewer, electric, natural gas and telephone lines – after more detailed engineering studies could be made. Higher-capacity lines, such as water and sewer lines, are being installed on the Near North Side on the assumption that thousands of new residents will move into a dramatically rejuvenated Trinity Uptown area in coming years.
$29 million in added costs as project officials decided to go first class on amenities to ensure a “really beautiful” waterfront along a 1.6-mile bypass channel that will be a major element of the Uptown project, Granger said. Expected features include pedestrian walkways and bridges, extensive landscaping, benches, water fountains, irrigation systems, accessibility ramps and locations for canoe and kayak launches to ensure “a great live-work-play environment,” he said. $20 million for modifications to a hydraulic dam that will help ensure stable and constant water levels in the Uptown area, which is to include a 33-acre urban lake. $13.5 million to meet tougher federal flood-control standards implemented after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Granger detailed the projected cost increases in an interview with the Fort Worth Business Press and in email responses to questions. Despite the cost spiral, Granger said, he believes the project still has a favorable public perception because the expected end results are enhanced flood control and enticing urban waterfront redevelopment.
Granger said the project not only will provide the city with significantly enhanced long-term flood control capabilities, but also will have “a huge impact on our tax base.” The eventual end result, he said, is that the project “pays for itself,” with the economic benefits offsetting the cost of the flood-control aspects of the project. A University of North Texas research center estimated in 2005 that business development generated by the project would, by 2045, boost annual economic activity in Tarrant County by more than $1.6 billion (expressed in 2005 dollars) and support more than 16,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Critics, however, label the project a boondoggle that likely will cost more than $1 billion and that will subsidize private developers. The critics note that the project already has forced businesses on the Near North Side to relocate as a result of the Tarrant Regional Water District’s use of eminent domain. The TRWD is a key participant in the project. Critics say the project is heavily reliant on federal funding that might never materialize, leaving local taxpayers to pick up the tab. And they stress that the project as a whole never was submitted to voters for approval in an election. A small slice of the spending – $14.7 million – was approved by Fort Worth voters in 2004 and 2008 bond elections. The project budget calls for roughly half its $909.9 million cost to be paid with federal dollars. But recent figures showed only $59 million in federal aid received thus far. A constrained budget outlook in Washington, D.C., heightens concerns about relying on Uncle Sam.
The project budget calls for $422 million in local funding, including $320 million from a tax-increment financing district, or TIF, that includes the water district, the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County, the Tarrant County College District and Tarrant County Hospital District as contributors. Don Woodard Sr., a Fort Worth insurance executive and longtime participant in civic affairs, is among Uptown’s persistent critics. “I don’t just call it a boondoggle, I call it a boondoggle with a capital B,” he said in a Business Press interview. Told of the seven reasons Granger cited for cost increases, Woodard said he is now “waiting for reasons eight, nine and 10, which will surely come along.” He said he has “no doubt in my mind” that the cost will top $1 billion.
He also complained about the project’s plans to create the 33-acre urban lake, which he dubs a “stock pond,” in the area of the historically significant confluence of the West and Clear forks of the Trinity on the north edge of downtown. Woodard said the confluence long has been a “beautiful landmark” for the city, but would be distorted by the lake. The Uptown project calls for construction of the 1.6-mile bypass channel, a hydraulic dam and other infrastructure that will allow for more stable water levels in the area and enable removal of some levees that long have been a barrier to attractive development at the water’s edge. The TRVA says the eventual result could be construction of 10,000 new residential units and 3 million square feet of commercial space. The project also calls for creating “valley storage areas” in undeveloped locations along the Trinity River corridor, where floodwaters could be “stored” for infrequent, short periods of time. The TRVA said Gateway Park area improvements are to include new basketball courts and court lighting, soccer fields, a splash park, canoe launches, bleachers, restrooms and concession facilities, walking and equestrian trails, pedestrian bridges, observation decks along the river and additional roads, parking facilities and sidewalks, plus the planting of thousands of trees and other ecosystem restoration. Riverside Park would get new athletic fields.
The expanded project combines the original Trinity Uptown plan with what had been a separate proposed Corps of Engineers project in the Gateway Park area and along the Trinity River channel east of downtown. The combined plan will enhance flood protection for 2,400 acres in the Uptown area and upstream areas to the west, as well as helping to prevent flooding downstream to the east, TRVA officials say. Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius, the TRVA board chairman, said he believes that despite the soaring cost estimates, “the vast majority of our citizens are very supportive” of the effort to revitalize the Near North Side with new residential and commercial development, while making the river more accessible. “The thing that excites me the most is that we’re going to open the river up. That’s fabulous,” he said. “And, second, we’re bringing new life to … what has been a kind of dead spot in the city.”
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