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Richard Connor: It’s time to bridge the River Vision information gap

🕐 7 min read

They can definitely deliver water to our faucets but they cannot help but muddy the future of our river.

“They” would be the Tarrant Regional Water District’s board of directors. The river would be our Trinity.

The water district’s primary role is to deliver clean water and plenty of it to Tarrant County residents and businesses. The board of directors, which most folks around these parts just call the “water board,” excels at making sure this happens.

Unfortunately, that board is also overseeing the Trinity River Vision project – remarketed in recent years as Panther Island –which began with good intentions but has become a $1.1 billion boondoggle and potential financial disaster. On this front, the board has not excelled and in fact has failed in such spectacular fashion that the project’s future appears as murky as a polluted stream, plagued by delays, cost overruns and the prospect of desperately needed federal financing going up in smoke.

At the public urging of Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and several of her fellow city council members, the water board reluctantly agreed Oct. 30 to a “review” that hopefully will tell us exactly where the project stands and what it will cost taxpayers to finish it, or at least get it back on track.

I say “hopefully” because, at this point, it’s unclear how the review will be conducted, who will conduct it, what aspects of the project will be examined and how deep the examination will go. When the mayor first raised the issue, she used the word “audit” but the less threatening term “review” soon became the operative word and it apparently was one the water board – which does not like to be questioned, much less audited – could accept.

The review still needs approval from the board of the Trinity River Vision Authority, which is the agency created by the water district to handle day-to-day management of the project. That board is expected to take up the issue at a meeting Nov. 7.

The water board is not happy about this development, by the way, as long-serving member Jim Lane made clear when the board discussed the proposed review before approving it by a 5-0 vote.

Lane, a former Fort Worth city councilman who once upon a time seemed to believe in the concepts of governmental transparency and accountability, took the city’s request for a review as a personal affront – as an accusation, even, that the water board is guilty of some sort of wrongdoing or malfeasance.

It was no such thing, of course. Mayor Price and her colleagues at City Hall simply want to find out where the project stands and what needs to be done to move it forward.

On the same day that the water board signed on to the mayor’s suggestion, Price explained her concerns to the Business Press in a freewheeling discussion with the newspaper’s editorial board. She had recently discussed the project’s potential costs and financing with officials in Washington and found that the numbers differed from those she had been given by the project’s local managers.

“I don’t think there’s any wrongdoing on anybody’s part,” Price emphasized, explaining that all she wants is to get a handle on a public works undertaking that was hatched as a relatively modest flood control project but has grown into a billion-dollar plan to transform the city in ways that at this late date could be virtually impossible to reverse.

So relax, Jim. No one is calling you a crook, least of all the woman who derailed your hopes of becoming the city’s top officeholder by defeating you in the 2011 mayoral election.

If there are people in the community who are suspicious of the water board, it’s the board’s own fault. Its members have stubbornly resisted all efforts by the public and the press to look closely at its actions, question their decisions and, most importantly, examine how the Panther Island project is being managed and financed.

In a telling exchange with members of the media reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Lane demanded to know if reporters had ever been denied documents they requested.

“Most said yes, citing high fees, attorney general reviews and lengthy wait times,” Star-Telegram reporter Luke Ranker wrote, adding that Lane responded by saying, “If you have a concern about the law in Texas as far as open records, somebody needs to tell us.”

Seriously, Jim? You seriously didn’t know that members of the media and the general public have tried repeatedly and to no avail to get their hands on board documents and records related to the Trinity River Vision? You didn’t know that reporters have filed requests for information under state public access laws only to be stonewalled by board members and water district staff? You didn’t know that one of your own colleagues, former board member Mary Kelleher, went so far as to engage a lawyer to help her get access to information she was legally entitled to as a duly elected member of the board?

It was this sort of arrogance and/or obliviousness that drove the Business Press to endorse opposition candidates the last time Lane and fellow board member Marty Leonard ran for re-election. Lane has been a good public servant in the past, but he has lost touch with reality and his own responsibilities as a member of the water board.

He’s not alone. The water district’s general manager, Jim Oliver, chastised the city for requesting information, saying it’s a “myth” that the city hasn’t been adequately informed about the Panther Island project. This was classic Oliver, who with the backing of the water board rules the water district as if he thinks it’s his private business, not a public body subject to the will of voters and taxpayers. But that’s a story for another day.

With or without the willing cooperation of the water board, Mayor Price is determined to get the runaway train known as Panther Island under control. Her immediate concern is the part of the project that is actually related to flood control rather than economic development along the riverfront: rerouting the river so that water flows under the three unfinished “bridges to nowhere” that have disrupted traffic around downtown Fort Worth and into a channel that would carry flood waters away from the area now served by a system of outdated levees.

That part of the project is urgent and essential, she said, and is expected to cost something upward of $200 million. The federal government authorized more than $500 million several years ago but that money has not been officially appropriated by Congress and there is little likelihood that it will be forthcoming in the near future.

Taking on this problem in such a public and decisive manner may be Mayor Price’s finest hour. Her leadership and her intelligent, rational approach to asking for answers on behalf of taxpayers is exceptional. She still supports the visionary notion of economic development that could flow from the project but is keeping it in perspective.

“The town lake, the canals and all that, they’ll be great and they will be a beautiful project.” she told our editorial board but said all that will have to follow flood control and probably be handed over to private developers.

“First and foremost we have to focus on flood control,” she said. “If we’re ever going to get another penny of federal dollars, we’ve got to get the flood control piece handled.”

Flood control. That’s how this all got started, so many years ago. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told local officials that the levees and flood control infrastructure developed after a devastating flood in 1949 had outlived their capacity to withstand a major flood and a new plan was needed. Somehow, a handful of “visionaries” managed to turn that perfectly sensible proposal into an economic development bonanza that promised to remake the face of Fort Worth with a San Antonio-like river walk, an urban lake and a never-ending economic gold rush.

Now that dream is facing the harsh reality of 21st century economics, government gridlock and the limits of bureaucratic ambition. It’s time to retrench and regroup. A truly independent review of the process that brought us to this point will be a good start.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at rconnor@bizpress.net

Richard Connor
Richard Connor is the owner and CEO/Publisher of DRC Media, the parent company of the Fort Worth Business Press. he also owns newspapers in Virginia. Mr. Connor held a number of corporate media executive positions before founding his own company. He is an award-winning columnist and at one time wrote a weekly column on national politics for CQ Politics, the online version of Washington, D.C.-based Congressional Quarterly.

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