TRWD negotiating with firm on comprehensive review

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A comprehensive review of the $1.16 billion Panther Island project could begin next month, about a month behind the original schedule.

The Trinity River Vision Authority board did not meet during February but negotiations have been underway all along with the lone bidder working toward an agreement on the scope of the work and the cost to conduct it, Tarrant Regional Water District General Manager Jim Oliver told TRWD board members on Tuesday.

“We’re hoping to have a (contract) to present to to the (TRVA) board at the April 3 meeting,” said Oliver, who is also a member of the TRVA board. TRWD is a parent agency of the TRVA.

The review was prompted by Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who said she had learned that the Panther Island project might have failed to obtain critical federal funds because some federal lawmakers and bureaucrats view it as a way for Fort Worth to obtain federal money for economic development and not just flood control.

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has authorized $526 million to be spent on the project. The money would go toward digging a 1.5-mile Trinity River bypass channel north of the Tarrant County Courthouse, a plan that would provide flood control protection as well as carving out an 800-acre center island that would be ripe for waterfront development.

But the project has failed to receive the appropriation it needs to carry out the ambitious plan. The cost over the project has escalated during the past 14 years from an initial estimate of $360 million to the current level of $1.16 billion.

The TRVA, a partnership agency that includes Tarrant County, the city of Fort Worth, the TRWD, is tasked with establishing Panther Island.

After Price sounded an alarm that project might be in jeopardy after meeting with officials in Washington, D.C., the TRVA board agreed to conduct the “programmatic review” to determine whether changes were necessary to attract federal dollars.

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A cost-benefit analysis of the project was not done for this project because TRVA officials say they were told it not necessary. Some question whether it should have been done because that examination is customary for federally-funded infrastructure projects.

The review is expected to determine whether that analysis is now necessary.

TRVA officials had hoped to receive multiple bids to conduct the review but only received a proposal from Dallas-based consulting firm, Riveron, the Fort Worth Business Press learned.

Details of the bid have not been released but Oliver said it was “very expensive.” Neither the TRVA or the TRWD established a budget for the review.

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The original schedule had set about three months for the review, based on a contract being signed by March 21.

Oliver said he is optimistic that the review will still wrap up this summer.

If the project fails to receive to a federal appropriation for 2020, TRWD officials said they would have to tap the $250 million in bonds approved by voters a year ago to keep the project on track.

TRWD Finance Director Sandy Newby said only $2.6 million from local funds has been spent on the project’s 2019 budget as of Jan. 31.

Last month, she told the board that there is about $13 million from a TRWD loan to stretch through the end of the fiscal year without having to issue short-term bonds.

Without a federal appropriation for 2020, funds from the $250 million voter-approved bond issue would need to be tapped.

But tapping those funds is tied to a 10-year extension of a tax-increment financing district (TIF) to capture tax money to repay the funds. The city created the TIF so the City Council is the only public body that could extend it.

City officials have signaled that extending the district from 40 to 50 years is contingent upon the outcome of the comprehensive review.

About $324.5 million in local funds has already been spent on the project. The total federal appropriation needed to complete the work is $585.8 million. Only $63.4 in federal funds for flood control improvements and bridge construction has been allocated for the project so far.

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