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Wednesday, October 28, 2020
Government Panther Island review moves forward with TRVA vote

Panther Island review moves forward with TRVA vote

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Potential contractors to conduct the review:

AlixPartners

Aon Hewitt

Bain & Company

Deloitte (current TRWD auditing firm)

Grant Thornton

Korn Ferry (formerly Hay Group)

McKinsey & Company

Mercer

Riveron

Source: TRVA

The Trinity River Vision Authority board of directors has signaled that it will do whatever is necessary to keep the endangered Panther Island project from drowning.

The board has wasted no time launching a comprehensive review of the project that depends on $585 million in on federal funds but has been rejected for an appropriation for the past three years.

The board approved a document Dec. 5 that officially begins the review process.

With nearly $322 million in local money already committed for the project, the board carefully scrutinized the scope of the top-to-bottom independent review that will examine everything from the TRVA’s management of the project to transparency, financial oversight and community engagement.

Among the more contentious matters to be reviewed is the escalating cost of the project that will transform the industrial area north of downtown Fort Worth into a thriving residential and entertainment hub centered on picturesque waterways that also provide flood control protection.

The project has ballooned in cost from initial estimates of $360 million about 14 years ago to $1.16 billion and in scope to include Gateway Park.

The consultant chosen for the review will also determine whether the absence of an economic assessment, otherwise known as a cost-benefit analysis, might be jeopardizing allocation of federal funds.

“We may not need it,” said G. K. Maenius, Tarrant County administrator and president of the board of TRVA, which includes representatives of the county, the City of Fort Worth and the Tarrant Regional Water District, which are all partners in the project.

“But if it’s necessary, we will do it because we need the federal funds,” Maenius said.

TRVA Executive Director J.D. Granger has said that the economic analysis was unnecessary at the time the project was proposed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for approval. The project was green-lighted by the Corps but only $60.5 million has been allocated so far.

Granger said funds from federal agencies other than the Corps have brought the total to about $108 million.

Federal funds and the Corps’ participation are critical to for digging a channel and rerouting a 1.5-mile stretch of the Trinity River north of the Tarrant County Courthouse.

The channel would replace the levees in that area of the river and would carve out a center land space to be known as Panther Island. Besides flood control protection, the project would clean up the blight and contamination of the Trinity River corridor north of downtown.

A San Antonio-style Riverwalk and new recreation amenities are among the planned improvements.

Although the project has long been criticized by some in the community as “The Boondoggle” for its extravagance and wasteful use of taxpayer dollars, it has enjoyed unwavering support from various administrations and leadership at City Hall and the County Courthouse.

But concerns about the funding of the project began to arise after it was revealed several months ago that federal funds were not allocated in the 2018 budget. Again, last month, the Corps announced that Panther Island was not included in the 2019 appropriation.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price raised further alarm after meeting with federal administrators in Washington, D.C., who informed her that the project didn’t qualify for the funds because of it appears to be an economic development venture as well as flood control protection.

Both the TRWD and TRVA boards unanimously agreed to the review to determine whether something is hindering the funding allocation and what needs to be done to remedy the situation.

TRWD and TRVA officials have been steadfast in their belief that the funding will come.

They point to the recent announcement that U.S. Rep. Kay Granger’s selection as ranking member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee as an indication that the prospect for federal funding might be improving.

On Dec. 3, Granger, the mother of TRVA’s executive director, was selected by GOP leadership for the position that includes approving projects approved by the Corps. Granger, a longtime member of the committee, would likely have headed up the committee if the Republicans had maintained control of the House. However, she will remain in a powerful position to keep an eye on funds destined for Fort Worth and Texas.

The selection and the familial relationship between the two Grangers put the project in the national spotlight when CQ Roll Call, a publication that follows movements on Capitol Hill, took note of the connection.

The publication was reporting on a story from NBC5 is which J.D. Granger said in a statement that has since been retracted that his mother would likely retire once the Panther Island Project was complete.

Rep. Granger issued a statement to the publication saying she is not retiring.

Maenius said that Rep. Granger’s high-level appropriations post is “no guarantee” that the funding will be available in the 2020 federal budget when the project needs $26 million to stay on track for completion by 2028.

The project’s timetable also calls for another $35 million in 2021.

That money is critical to digging the channel and putting water under three V-pier bridges that are currently under construction and expected to be completed within about a year.

Price said she learned from her meeting with officials in Washington that the project could be eligible for discretionary funds, up to about $50 million. But that also is not a guarantee.

“On a big project like this, now that we’ve have the bridges almost finished, it’s time to say, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” she said.

Voters also approved a $250 million bond issue last year for this project and it’s possible that some of that money could go toward digging the channel, Price said.

It’s also possible that a tax finance district that was created to support development of the project could be extended from 40 to 50 years to provide extra time to pay off the bond debt, Price said. Voters were promised no additional taxes from the bond issue.

The review will consider availability of other federal, state and private money that may be available for the project as well as matters such as:

– Design of the bridges, now being constructed on dry land, but will eventually cross the channel;

– Financial transparency and publication of project progress;

– Oversight the TRVA board should have over TRWD staff assigned to the project; and

– Financial policies and procedures of the TRVA.

A tentative schedule for the review suggests that requests for proposals from prospective consultants be issued during the week of Dec. 10 and selection of a consultant for the independent review by the end of February.

The schedule anticipates the review conclude by mid-June although Maenius said that timetable may be too ambitious.

A budget for the review was not considered.

“We want a quality report,” Maenius said, signaling that bids will help determine the cost and timeframe of the review.

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