Critics of the Trinity River Vision – a small but vocal group that has long included this newspaper – could barely contain their glee when they learned that a pile of highly anticipated federal money for the project had been left out of the government’s 2018 budget.
“We told you so!” they exclaimed as one, reminding themselves and each other that they had been predicting for years that federal funding would fall by the wayside and the project’s backers would be left holding the bag.
Their joy was fleeting, of course, because these folks are nothing if not realists and they quickly realized that if the feds dump the River Vision, aka Panther Island, local taxpayers – not the self-serving “visionaries” who cooked up this economic development extravaganza – will get stuck with the tab.
“We’re going to keep moving, locally, full steam ahead,” project spokesman Matt Oliver blithely told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price echoed Oliver’s lack of concern, issuing a statement that said the city is “moving forward with our piece of the project, as this is a top priority for our city.”
Fort Worth’s share of the price tag for the project – the ever-growing estimated cost now exceeds $1 billion and there appears to be no ceiling – is supposedly capped at $26.6 million but no one seriously believes the city can be prevented from kicking in more if officials decide it’s necessary. On the hook for the rest of the billion-plus are other local taxing entities, the state and of course the federal government – Congress OK’d more than $500 million for the project just two years ago.
As most discerning citizens recall, this all began decades ago as a relatively modest flood control plan and gradually turned into a massive economic development project overseen by the Tarrant Regional Water District. For a while, in between its early designation as Trinity River Vision and the current title, Panther Island, the project – or part of it, anyway – was known as “Trinity Uptown.” The project’s perpetrators keep changing the name, apparently hoping to escape the moniker it just can’t seem to shake: boondoggle.
Price emphasized the alleged flood-control benefits of the project in her reaction to the reported tightening of federal funds, as did Fort Worth Congresswoman Kay Granger, who is shepherding Panther Island in Washington. Granger issued a statement saying the Army Corps of Engineers, the government agency responsible for the project, is “strongly” committed to the project and that it is “authorized for federal funding in this coming year’s 2019 Energy and Water Development Act.”
Critics ranging from the late City Councilman Chuck Silcox in the project’s formative days to relentless naysayers such as former Councilman Clyde Picht and businessman-author Don Woodard have blasted everything from the underlying “vision” – spurring an explosion of development by rerouting the Trinity River to create a town lake and river walk – to the escalating cost. They have also consistently raised a nagging question: What if the federal money dries up?
Some wags like to recall the preposterously ambitious and ill-advised Superconducting Super Collider – a giant underground atom smasher that was abruptly abandoned by the feds, leaving greater Waxahachie with nothing but broken dreams and a mammoth hole in the ground.
That bit of history seems particularly poignant as we watch the Panther Island planners building $80 million-plus worth of bridges – three of them – over dry land on the assumption (hope?) that the dysfunctional, fiscally challenged federal government will deliver the millions more that will be needed to change the river’s course and send water gushing across the parched Texas earth beneath the beautiful bridgework.
The new bridges aren’t really “bridges to nowhere” as some skeptics have dubbed them but they are bridges to places that were perfectly accessible via existing surface streets until the Panther Island dreamers decided to tear up the streets and replace them with bridges that might never be needed.
Unfortunately, supporters’ contention that Panther Island will march on is well-founded, if not well-funded. Congress and the president – any president – can never agree on a full-fledged budget so the government is funded through a series of short-term money bills. If some project or other gets left out of the latest budget bill it might well get into the next one.
Besides, Granger is a member of the powerful House appropriations committee and could be in line to become the committee’s chairwoman if Republicans retain control of the House in the November elections. Not only that, she was an original architect of the Trinity River Vision as Fort Worth mayor in the 1990s and many believe she’s looking to Panther Island as the legacy of her long career in public service. She is hell-bent on getting it done.
Then there’s this. This past May, water district voters obediently paraded to the polls and approved $250 million in bonds to make up for what district officials said was a shortfall in natural gas revenues dedicated to the Panther Island project. There’s no reason to believe the water district board of directors can’t or won’t dip into that well again if money is in short supply. The water board may wish it had never heard of the Trinity River Vision, given the controversy it has caused and the heat it has generated for board members. But they own it now; they, too, are hell-bent on getting it done.
So. The River Vision lumbers on, promising flood control, economic wonders and dreams come true for its visionaries. For taxpayers, sad to say, it’s not exactly a dream. More like a nightmare.