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Monday, April 19, 2021

A closer inspection: City wants review of Trinity River Vision plan

One of the city’s future economic linchpins – the $1.1 billion Trinity River Vision plan – is facing renewed scrutiny.

Set off by the news earlier this year that funding for the project is not included in this year’s federal budget, officials from the city of Fort Worth, one of the major partners in the project, seem poised to require additional information on the plan’s progress.

It is unclear exactly why the federal government did not include the project in the latest budget. The project has been approved the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a key step in receiving funding. There are some indications that other recent natural disasters around the county have taken precedence, but that also the economic development aspects of this project may be a barrier.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price has talked directly with the White House about the prospects for funding for the Trinity River Vision plan and, as a result, the city is working to determine how best to move forward the $1.1 billion project, according to David Cooke, Fort Worth city manager.

“The mayor has gone to Washington, D.C., and had direct conversations with the Office of Management and Budget and the White House so she can … get a confidence level on the amount of federal funds we are going to get,” he said on Oct. 23, following the third annual City Manager’s Update luncheon before the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.

“So, there is some question as to how much of the federal funds are going to come to Fort Worth for the project,” Cooke said.

The mayor, he said, has seen some indication that the project might have to be scaled back “to just the very core flood control pieces of the project.”

But that raises other questions, Cooke said.

“So how much is that?” he said, “And what is the timetable in which the money would be coming?

“That’s raised the question that we’re talking about now and that’s what would require the scale back [on the project],” he said.

In May, voters approved a $250 million bond issue to help fund the project, known as the Panther Island project.

The project is run by the Tarrant Regional Water District and the Trinity River Vision Authority, with additional participation from the city, Tarrant County and TxDOT. The plan would double the size of downtown to the north, adding a river walk, an urban lake and create a swath of land for development.

The three bridges currently under construction will be complete next year, he said, then the channels will need to be dug.

“The city wants to make sure we can continue the project,” he said, “deliver it to the public – what we’ve been talking about for years and years – and there’s just some indication that we’re not getting the full amount of the federal funding and that would require scaling it back.”

As a result, Price said she would like a review or even an audit of the project before extending a special tax district that would be used to pay off the $250 million in bonds that voters approved in April.

“We, as the Fort Worth City Council and mayor, we pride ourselves being very open and transparent,” said District 8 council member Kelly Allen Gray. “As we promoted the bond for the Trinity River Vision last April and May, [we should] get that same transparency for our citizens as we asked for their vote to support that endeavor.”

Price said it was time to get a full report on where the project stands.

“I would think the consensus is that we will hold the TIF [Tax Increment Financing District] for the time being and ask for the board to approve, not a full audit, but a process review of the whole project,” she told the council.

“We decided as a council before we authorize the TIF extension that this is a good point in time for a review of the project,” said Councilman Carlos Flores. “If there are questions that council needs to address, now is the time to do it.”

“This is about gathering as much information as possible before going ahead with the TIF extension,” he said.

A timetable for the review has not been determined nor has it been decided who will conduct the review, he said.

District 7 Councilman Dennis Shingleton said the council needs information.

“What we’re looking at is not necessarily a financial audit, but a series of bullet points, a financial plan, what’s been paid for, what’s not,” he said. “Council doesn’t know any of that.

“We’re not saying anybody has done anything wrong, but we’ve got citizens of this city who think the mayor and council run everything. Tell us what’s going on,” he said.

On Oct. 30, the Tarrant Regional Water District Board, which is in charge of the project, will meet and likely will vote on a review of the project.

Officials with the project have said that since Congress fully authorized the project in 2016, the federal dollars – about half the project’s cost – will show up.

A University of North Texas research center estimated in 2005 that business development generated by the project would, by 2045, boost annual economic activity in Tarrant County by more than $1.6 billion (expressed in 2005 dollars) and support more than 16,000 direct and indirect jobs.

The council will take the next step at a later meeting.

– Additional reporting by Marice Richter and Rick Mauch

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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