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Tuesday, June 2, 2020
Home Opinion Richard Connor: Up the creek and headed nowhere – Panther Island redux

Richard Connor: Up the creek and headed nowhere – Panther Island redux

The folks responsible for running the Panther Island project – running it into the ground, some might say – are giving new meaning to that old saying about “being up the creek without a paddle.”

They don’t even have a boat.

Here we are nearly a month into 2019 and we’re still dogged by a story that was not new but had mostly lain dormant until exploding into public awareness late last year: Panther Island, originally called and more commonly known as the Trinity River Vision project, has been horrendously mismanaged and is totally out of control.

A better name might be: Trinity River Lack of Vision.

The latest news is that construction of the project’s three infamous bridges over not troubled water but in fact no water has fallen further behind schedule. The earliest projected completion date for any of the bridges is late summer 2020. That would be the bridge on White Settlement Road. The nearby Henderson Street bridge won’t be finished before spring 2021, officials say, while the North Main Street leg of the waterless triumvirate is not expected to be ready for traffic until at least late winter 2021.

Some critics have referred to these unfinished spans as “bridges to nowhere,” which is not accurate – they surely will take us somewhere eventually – but the detours and traffic disruptions caused by all this construction have in effect created several roads to nowhere. Motorists who haven’t become disoriented and wandered off in the wrong direction – or just idled hopelessly in a traffic jam – trying to get through or around the construction should thank their lucky stars.

The Panther Island debacle is managed, or mismanaged, by the Trinity River Vision Authority, which is an offshoot of the Tarrant Regional Water District, the agency charged with overall responsibility for the plan when it was conceived decades ago as a flood control project. Since then, it has grown into a massive economic development undertaking that involves rerouting the Trinity River to create recreational and business activities along a San Antonio-like riverwalk with a newly created island as the centerpiece.

The water district’s board of directors, its general manager Jim Oliver and River Vision Authority executive director J.D. Granger have brought precious little expertise and efficiency to the project but they have managed to bury it in arrogance, obfuscation and even flat-out deception.

As the public awaits an independent review of the project – a review demanded by Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price after news broke that desperately needed money was being withheld by the federal government – officials keep telling us that Fort Worth’s congresswoman, Kay Granger, will unlock the government vault and save the day for taxpayers and, of course, her son J.D.

Despite those reassurances – pipe dreams? – federal funding for Panther Island is not on the horizon and may never be.

But there is a trickle of hope in this water drama.

Candidates are filing to run for the water board, folks who have had enough and who know this problem can begin to be fixed by the voters in the May 4 election. The board has five members and two have emerged as leaders for good government, James Hill and Leah King. One more vote and a flood of change could happen, a virtual cascade of solid procedures and good management.

Both Charles “C.B.” Team, vice-president and principal at the real estate company Ellis & Tinsley, and Attorney Gary M. Moates plan to run. Mary Kelleher, who was a lone voice for change when she served on the water board from 2013-2017, lost a re-election bid two years ago but is running again.

Fort Worth, as we all know, is a small/big city. And on the day he filed, there was Moates shopping at Central Market. He is energetic and full of ideas for change and he was more than willing to stop traffic at the checkout counter to talk about the river project and his hopes to alter the winding course it has taken.

His law practice at Decker Jones has involved all facets of real estate development over two decades, a perfect fit for a candidate for the dysfunctional board.

Water board elections historically draw low voter turnout, which tends to favor incumbents rather than challengers. The two seats up for election this time are currently held by longtime board members Jim Lane and Marty Leonard, who bought a full-page ad in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Jan. 9 to “set the record straight” on Panther Island. The ad was self-serving palaver, a tedious rehash of official explanations and rationalizations for the mess the project has become.

A better tack would have been for Lane and Leonard to apologize for wasting taxpayer money, for being rubber stamps for errant policies and executive arrogance: “We apologize and will do better.”

Lane and Leonard have both filed to run for re-election. 

Their fate remains to be seen but one thing is certain: It’s time for change at the water district and there will be candidates for the water board who can deliver that change. Voters might want to take a cue from the crazed TV anchorman in the brilliant 1976 movie Network: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

We’ve taken it for far too long.

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