As an invited guest to an economic summit at the White House in late September, Mayor Betsy Price had the opportunity to discuss a top priority for the city of Fort Worth and she took it.
“We were meeting with White House governmental affairs people and they said, ‘What are you working on,’ ” Price told Fort Worth Business Press editors in a meeting last week.
Price said she replied: “I’m growing more and more concerned about the funding for our (Trinity) River Vision project and it’s a top priority for the city because we now have three bridges that will soon be finished with no water under them, and at this point, we’re not seeing the funds for the channel anywhere in the pipeline.”
Price’s White House meeting occurred a few weeks after news reports revealed that the current year federal budget did not include funding of any part of the more than $500 million the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had signed off on for the Trinity River Vision project, also known as Panther Island.
This complex project has expanded to a cost to about $1.1 billion during the two decades since it was first envisioned as a way to eliminate the aging levees of the Trinity River near downtown and replace them with an ambitious redeveloped river corridor highlighted by a town lake and a San Antonio-style river walk.
White House officials directed Price to the federal Office of Management and Budget, where she met with a top official who gave her a straight, but chilling, reply: “There’s no funding for this project. It’s economic development,” Price said she was told.
The bottom line was that the scope of the project needed to be retooled to focus solely on flood control, she said.
Otherwise, “the White House isn’t going to approve it, the Corps can’t approve it, your only hope of funding it at this point because it’s not in the budget, is to get …
discretionary dollars the Corps has,” she said.
Recognizing that federal funding, the cornerstone of project and a necessity for flood control protection, Price returned to Fort Worth and soon called for an audit of the project and possibly scaling it back.
Council members individually have spoken in favor of this approach.
The Tarrant Regional Water District, the Trinity River Vision Authority and Tarrant County are partners with the city in the Panther Island project.
The TRWD board Oct. 30 followed Price’s lead by voting unanimously to conduct a comprehensive review of the project.
The TRVA board is set to meet Nov. 7 to consider a similar move.
The TRWD board took the vote at the urging of the board’s two newest members, James Hill and Leah King.
“This is a very large, very complex project,” said Hill, who took the lead in recommending the review. “One of our partners has expressed concern about it so we should do this to make sure we are being transparent.
“A lot has changed since this project since this project got started so it makes sense to take another look,” Hill said.
But conducting a review apparently did not sit well with the project’s staunchest defenders within the TRWD.
Board member Jim Lane, who voted in favor of the review, said the project has always been about flood control and not economic development, recalling the 1949 flood that put a large swath of the city, now known as the West 7th area underwater.
“The city is demanding an audit,” he said. Maybe “someone thinks there is malfeasance.”
Lane and several other project supporters maintain that they expect the federal dollars to come through.
In further defense of the project, the TRWD administration released a statement from the local Corps office reinforcing support for the project and stating that there is “requirement for additional study.”
“As in the past, the Corps is currently developing its work plan, which will allocate funds appropriated by Congress,” Fort Worth-based Corps Spokesman Clay Church said in the statement. “This funding is eligible and is being considered for funding.”
The project, which has long been championed by Congresswoman Kay Granger, also has long been criticized by a vocal group of detractors.
In the wake of the reports that funding wasn’t appropriated this year, other civic and community leaders have joined critics in questioning whether local taxpayers would end up holding the bag for project, according to several sources.
Over the past 14 years, the project has received only $64 million in federal dollars.
“We’ve had $14 million in the last three years and nothing from (the federal government) in two years,” Price said.
Progress on the project includes construction of three unfinished bridges that cross dry land. Channels for the river are to be dug once the bridges are complete.
“Now that we’ve have the bridges almost finished, it’s time to say ’what are we going to do?’ ” Price said.
“If Kay can secure the rest of the federal funds, that would be great,“ Price said. “But in the interim, we have to figure out how to dig this channel to get water under those bridges.”
Discretionary money could be “as much as $50 million but that would be about it from the Corps Work Plan dollars,” Price said.
Pointing to estimates of $200 to $250 million to dig the channel, Price said it would be possible to use any discretionary federal dollars and part of the $250 million in bonds approved by voters last spring for the project, she said.
Furthermore, a tax increment finance district that was created to support the project could be extended from 40 to 50 years for paying off the debt, she said.
“First and foremost, it’s the channel that brings the river under the bridges and control the flood piece that heads out to Gateway Park,” Price said. “The town life, the canals and all that, they’ll be great they will be a beautiful project.
“But they’re going to have to done, more than likely, by a private partner,” said.
The channel would control water flow and prevent flooding through a series of gates. The Corps is about 60 percent finished with the design, she said.
Price said getting all the project partners together to support the review is critical to obtaining federal dollars. She defined it as a “stem-to-stern review of the project.”
“We would like to see everybody at the table with a totally independent third-part that’s not been involved at all,” she said.
Once the flood-control portion of the project is arranged, Price said it is likely that the economic development piece could be split off through a public-private partnership, which is common in large, costly development projects.