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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Richard Connor: Panther Island hits a logjam of money and management

“If you have three bridges built over dry land, people are going to start asking a lot of questions.”

– David Cooke, Fort Worth City Manager

The possible metaphors flow faster than, well, faster than a raging river. But it’s not the Trinity River that’s raging at the moment, it’s public uproar over a riverfront redevelopment project that suddenly could be sinking faster than a boat with a hole in the bottom.

Often blasted but rarely bruised, the previously bulletproof Trinity River Vision plan that would turn a chunk of Fort Worth’s riverfront into a $1.1 billion replica of San Antonio’s famed river walk has suffered an unexpected break in what has always appeared to be an impenetrable dam of public support.

The cracks in the facade of the river vision, aka Panther Island, are multiple. First, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram – a longtime editorial advocate of the project – broke the news that highly anticipated and much-needed federal money for the project had been omitted from the government’s current budget and left out of next year’s spending plan as well.

Then, the newspaper got its hands on some emails showing that the project’s most devoted and important champion, Fort Worth Congresswoman Kay Granger, had clashed with the executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority – who just happens to be her son – over plans to build three new bridges that are crucial to the economic development boom supporters insist will flow from the project as surely as a river flowing into the sea.

It seems the congresswoman (and former Fort Worth mayor) had secured a commitment from the Texas Department of Transportation to build the bridges in a manner that almost certainly would have been cheaper and faster than the plan favored by J.D. Granger and his cohorts at the TRVA and the Tarrant Regional Water District, which is the agency overseeing the project.

The mother deferred to the son and the result, as we now see with our very own eyes, is three over-designed, over-budget, unfinished bridges. You could argue, of course, that there’s no particular rush to finish the bridges since there will be no water under any of them until and unless Washington decides to unleash the millions of federal dollars needed to reroute the river, giving purpose to the would-be bridges and creating the hoped-for urban lake and river walk that would theoretically make all this worthwhile.

But there’s more. Given the newly raised questions about funding for the project and longstanding concerns by a small but vocal band of critics that the project has been badly mismanaged for decades, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price called for an independent review of the project and its finances. Price even suggested that it might be necessary to refocus the project on its original core purpose: flood control.

Yes, once upon a time – two or three decades and hundreds of millions of dollars ago – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told Fort Worth officials they should consider upgrading the city’s levees and flood control infrastructure, which dated back to the aftermath of a devastating 1949 flood that put much of the area we now call West 7th under water. The city jumped on board and somehow turned that sensible proposal into the Panther Island extravaganza that some naysayers ultimately dubbed The Boondoggle.

We reported two weeks ago that two members of the water board had been demanding an audit but now the mayor has joined the fray and brought other members of the city council with her.

Mayor Price should be applauded for her courage and leadership in demanding to know just what the hell is going on with a project that has ballooned in cost and scope while operating in virtual obscurity under the jurisdiction of the hopelessly secretive water district. The district’s boss, Jim Oliver, and its notoriously arrogant and transparency-phobic board of directors must be put on notice that the taxpayers and their representatives at other governmental entities that are coughing up money for Panther Island will no longer tolerate an unfettered flow of tax dollars into an undug river channel, a trinity of unbuilt bridges and a veritable pipe dream of burgeoning commercial development.

The Business Press has long criticized the project as misguided, mismanaged, overpriced and overhyped. We have argued for changes at the water district and, mostly to no avail, editorially endorsed challengers to entrenched and unresponsive members of the water board. We criticized the appointment of Granger’s son to head the agency created as a surrogate of the water district to promote the project and propel it toward completion.

Our argument was never specifically with J.D. Granger’s qualifications or lack of them. We simply believed such blatant nepotism involving such an expensive and high-profile project was ill-advised. Those unfinished bridges rimming Panther Island might add some credence to that point of view; if Kay Granger had insisted on having the state build the bridges instead of letting her son have his way, they might well be completed by now – and with far less expenditure of taxpayer money.

Until Mayor Price stepped up to the plate with a bold stroke of leadership and common sense, the water district and river vision authority had been acting as if Panther Island was still right on target and there was no cause for alarm. But now the city of Fort Worth – which has committed more than $26 million to the project and is the main cog in a special taxing district that is critical to the plan – has officially joined the ranks of Panther Island skeptics. The water district has miraculously become interested in the idea of a project review and will meet to discuss it on Tuesday, Oct. 30.

The review must be done and it must be done by a truly independent entity, not by one of the water board’s crony consultants – and the board’s history of cronyistic contracts where Panther Island is concerned should be one of the focal points of the independent review. It’s time to plug the hole in the dike on Panther Island.

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

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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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