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As Panther Island officials wait for federal funds, bridge schedule firms up

🕐 6 min read

A week after learning that the only money allotted to the $1.17 billion Panther Island would be for a feasibility study, local officials still have no more clarity about the study or their next move.

But Tarrant Regional Water District board member James Hill didn’t mince words on Tuesday with a report on the project to the board.

“I think it is time to take a pause,” Hill said, after noting this is the third consecutive year that the project has failed to win any federal funding for construction. The project is authorized to receive $526 million and has received about $68 million in the past.

“I don’t think we need to be into more debt on the project” at this time, Hill said.

While project partners, including the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County along with the TRWD, were hoping for federal money for construction the money included in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers budget was $1.5 million to be equally matched by the local agencies for the study.

“We are waiting on guidance from the Corps,” said Panther Island program manager Mark Mazzanti, a former executive with the Corps.

In the meantime, local funds will continue to move ahead relocating utilities, land acquisition and other preparations needed to be ready for the Corps to begin the work of digging a channel on the Trinity River to improve flood control and transform an industrial area north of the Tarrant County Courthouse into the waterfront community of Panther Island.

But with local funds dwindling, the TRWD has begun issuing commercial paper bonds to pay necessary bills.

It remains unclear when the project will be finished.

“That’s a question I want answers to,” said TRWD board member Leah King.

Separately, a schedule that was announced as firm up on Tuesday is for the three bridges Panther Island bridges that will eventually cross the channel.

Fort Worth City Council members were told that the White Settlement Road bridge will be finished in December this year while the North Main and Henderson street bridges will be completed in December 2021.

That schedule has the White Settlement bridge two years behind the original completion date of 2018 and the other bridges three years behind.

Despite the lag in construction, leaders of the partner agencies have long insisted that the bridges were fully funded and any cost overruns would be settled when the bridges were finished.

But a top regional transportation planner told the City Council that the cost of the bridges has escalated by about $19 million from $69.9 million to $89.3 million. A payment of nearly $16 million was made to the Sterling Construction of Houston in December, the contractor for the bridge project.

Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments (COG), said the additional cost would be covered by the Regional Transportation Council (RTC), the oversight body for transportation planning throughout North Central Texas.

The RTC must vote on the payment, which could happen as soon as mid-March or possibly April, Morris said.

The money will likely come from a federal transportation bloc grant, he said. Since the contractor has already been paid by the Texas Department of Transportation, the grant money would reimburse the state agency.

Morris acknowledged that cost overruns were anticipated from the time the V-pier design was selected about six years ago.

“We did not like this bridge design,” Morris said. He told the council that he and two other top local transportation leaders preferred the West 7th Street design for the sake of consistency.

But Army Corps officials said the West Seventh Street design would require two- to three-years of study and modeling, which would potentially slow the Corps’ timetable for digging the Panther Island channel, Morris said.

A second choice would have been a common V-pier design but that, too, was rejected due to extra time for study and modeling, Morris said he was told. Instead, the transportation officials signed off on the unique V-pier design, with each pier being unique and a different size.

“So we took one for the team to help meet the Corps’ construction schedule,” Morris said.

Although no additional cost overruns are anticipated, Morris and Lloyl Bussell, district engineer for TxDOT, did not rule out the possibility of unforeseen circumstances that could result in extra cost or delays.

Experts and consultants are working on-site to oversee aid construction and prevent further delays and an agreement with the contractor has workers are on-site seven days a week as well as on overnight shift work, Bussell said.

Morris said the nearly $90 million price tag is about the amount he expected the bridges would cost because of a design that is “very complex.”

“The bottom line is it’s needed, and we’ve got to move forward, and we’ve got to do so as responsible messengers,” said District 6 Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Jungus Jordan. “You’re standing in front of us a road map. As keepers of the public trust, you’ve given us the pathway.”

Morris said years from now any complaints about the additional funding will be forgotten, pointing to cost overruns in the Chisholm Trail Parkway that took more than half a century to complete.

“Someone will stand here 10 years from now and ask ‘What was the deal about the $20 million dollars?’ We’ve got to keep it in perspective,” he said.

The new schedule pushes back completion of the bridges from a tentative schedule announced by TxDOT a year ago. At that time, the White Settlement bridge was due to be completed by this summer or early fall of 2020, with bridges for North Main and Henderson streets in early 2021.

Mayor Betsy Price has made completion of the bridges, especially the White Settlement bridge a top priority for the city. The White Settlement road closure has been most impactful because there is no construction work-around as there is at the other two bridge sites.

Businesses along White Settlement have been cut-off from downtown during construction, leaving many struggling and others closing their doors.

Even if bridge construction is completed according to the schedule, it is uncertain whether federal funding will be allocated for channel construction to meet the current project schedule.

The feasibility study could take up to three years, if it is necessary, officials said.

The announcement of $1.5 million for a study came after the Trinity River Vision Authority, an offshoot of the TRWD, hired a consultant to conduct a comprehensive review of the scope of the Panther Island project.

As a result, a restructuring of the TRVA, the of the oversight agency for Panther Island, reassigned TRVA executive director J.D. Granger to a narrower role within the TRWD. Other TRVA tasks were reassigned to the city of Fort Worth and TRWD as well.

Granger is the son of U.S. Congresswoman Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, who has been the champion of Panther Island for nearly two decades.

Officials said they felt confident that the organizational changes and a focus strictly on flood control protection would better position the project for federal funds.

About $330 million of local funds have already been spent on the project and some local leaders, including Fort Worth City Manager and TRVA board member David Cooke are reluctant to spend any more without a guarantee of federal funds.

Price has signaled that it could be time to look elsewhere for funds.

“While we are disappointed TRV did not receive federal funding for construction, we will continue to collaborate with our local partners, this administration and our delegation in Washington on this critical flood control project,” Price said in a statement. “Furthermore, I believe this is an opportunity to bring private partners to the table and explore public-private partnerships.”

Rick Mauch contributed to this report.

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