Richard Connor: Start the celebration – there will be bridges (we hope)

The White Settlement bridge: near-reality or skeletal fanatasy? (Photo by Paul Harral)

It’s not too early to plan a Christmas celebration for December 2020.

That’s when you should be able to drive across the new bridge on White Settlement Road, as well as the one on Main Street.

These are two of the three bridges connected to the Panther Island project and currently headed nowhere. They sit suspended midair, looking more like the skeletal remains of a Tyrannosaurus rex – dead – than something that will grow to full size.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and a representative of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) told a group of business people and other concerned citizens Sept. 11 that the White Settlement bridge will be completed by the “end of 2020.” That’s December 2020 in my book, and although still a long time off it’s good news for businesses and all of us who try to navigate White Settlement Road and the horrendous traffic snarls on nearby West Seventh Street.

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These are bridges, by the way, that were scheduled to be completed in 2017 and 2018.

And, so, that begs the question: Why should we believe the new date when the responsible parties have failed over and over to deliver on time?

Loyl Bussell, a TxDOT district engineer, assured the group that the bulk of the problems with the bridges – problems stemming primarily, he said, from an excessively intricate design – have been addressed.

Bussell said his expertise is in bridges and added that these bridges are the most complicated he has ever seen. Critics of the bridges have long argued that they could have been modeled on the same design as the new bridge on Seventh Street, which was built quickly and for much less money.

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But that, as they say, is water under the bridge. Irony intended.

Mayor Price, as usual, was direct and also convincing at the meeting, which was held at Angelo’s, the legendary barbecue restaurant that sits in the shadow of the unfinished White Settlement bridge and has suffered along with other businesses in the neighborhood. Price said the bridges will be built. She also assured the group that the $65 million construction cost is fully funded.

“It does not matter who is on first (base) or second,” she said, referencing the blame-placing and finger-pointing that has haunted this entire project.

“We have passed the point of dancing around this,” she said.

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Some at the meeting speculated that the bridges may fall behind the new completion schedule and will cost more than the allocated $65 million.

Here’s the dilemma. There were those who dealt with facts and promises and then there was speculation and guesswork. This was a meeting that was as much about who was not there as who was. Cheers to the mayor and city council members Dennis Shingleton and Anne Zadeh for attending.

Price, in fact, offered her cellphone number to anyone who wanted to call her directly to discuss the project. That’s leadership and transparency and accountability.

Here’s who was not there: anyone from the Tarrant Regional Water District, which is charged with overall supervision of the project; the Trinity River Vision Authority, which is responsible for day-to-day management; the bridge design firm, Freese and Nichols; or the contractor, Sterling Construction.

The contractor continues to hide behind attorney Frank Hill, who was at the meeting and made vague references to construction delays and cost overruns he said have resulted from repeated change orders.

Hill said the amounts of the cost overruns due to change orders have been submitted to TxDOT for review. Bussell, who begged to differ, was but polite but adamant. TxDOT has not been given the data and details Hill claims have been sent by the contractors.

So who are you going to believe and trust? Those who showed up and made promises or those who are in hiding?

Where were representatives of the water district and the River Vision Authority? This was a meeting held by and for businesses along White Settlement, many of which are struggling to survive because of the bridge delays and related street closings. They deserved some answers from the people directly responsible for turning the overly ambitious flood control/economic development plan known variously as the Trinity River Vision, the Central City Project and just plain “Panther Island” into a horrifying debacle.

And where was the engineering firm that designed these troubled bridges over nonexistent water, not to mention the contractor that blames the design for delays but has yet to support its claim with facts and figures?

While we are at it, where is the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce in all of this? The city’s most vocal booster club remains ghostly silent on a frightfully mismanaged, $1.17 billion project that has wide-ranging ramifications for businesses the chamber allegedly represents.

The chamber hosted a speech last month by Congresswoman Kay Granger, chief proponent of the water project, and did not allow for questions from the audience. Clearly, the river project and the congresswoman’s role in promoting it would have been a priority question from those in attendance. They might even have wanted to quiz her about the role of her son, J.D. Granger, who is executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority.

Optimism is a word rarely associated with this project but, for the moment at least, let’s look at the bright side. There are promised completion dates for the bridges – White Settlement and Main Street at the end of 2020. Henderson Street in 2021. The mayor is fully involved and committed. TxDOT has given assurances. These are all encouraging signs.

Let’s dance with the ones that brung us, as it were, and leave the no-shows and skeptics in our wake.

Bussell said it’s even possible that a bike path on the White Settlement Bridge may be open before the end of 2020. Price is a devoted cyclist. Perhaps Mayor Betsy will lead the inaugural bike ride across the bridge?

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