A sweeping review of the Panther Island project may not move forward on schedule because only one bid was submitted to conduct a deep dive into everything from management and oversight to the design of the bridges being built over dry land.
The Trinity River Vision Authority board learned Feb. 6 that its tight 90-day schedule – from awarding a bid to completing the review – may not be realistic. The review was targeted to be completed around June 19.
The bridges, too, may see another delay. The board also learned at the meeting that a schedule for the completion of the three bridges that will span the channel may change again.
Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius, who is president of the TRVA board, said the schedule may have to be pushed back as a board subcommittee explores why no other firms bid to conduct the review, including clarity issues with the request for proposals (RFP).
“If we have to expand the time frame we will,” Maenius said. “The final product is the basis for our future actions on this project.”
Representatives of between five and eight firms had attended a required meeting in January for potential bidders. Those bidders included national firms the TRVA board identified as possible bidders for the contract, with an unspecified cost.
“We were surprised as anyone else would be that we only got one response,” Maenius said.
Maenius said the lone bid was a “complex response” but every bit of it was “stamped confidential and propitiatory,” Maenius said.
Maenius declined to identify the bidder but said it was from a “nationally recognized” firm with a local office.
Attorneys for the Tarrant Regional Water District, the parent agency of the TRVA, will review the bid to determine whether all of it should be deemed confidential or whether some details can be disclosed in the interest of government transparency, Maenius said.
Initially, TRVA officials identified nine potential national consulting firms that they hoped might apply to conduct the review. Four of those firms sent representatives to the mandatory meeting. They are: AlixPartners, BDO, Mercer, and Riveron. All have regional offices in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
The push for a comprehensive review began several months ago after Mayor Betsy Price said she was informed by federal Management and Budget officials that the project failed to receive funding in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers work budget for the past three cycles because it has an economic development component and is not just flood control.
A federal appropriation of $26 million is needed in 2020 and another $35 million is required in 2021 to keep the $1.16 billion project on schedule for completion in 2028.
Meanwhile, local officials are hoping that U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, will secure a federal appropriation in the 2020 budget for at least some of the money. Granger, the chief advocate in Washington, D.C. for the Panther Island project, is now the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Nearly $322 million in local money has already been invested in the project along with about $108 million from various federal agencies. Only $60.5 million has come from the Corps, which is supposed to be the chief federal funder for the flood control portion that involves replacing aging levees with a channel and rerouting a 1.5-mile stretch of the Trinity River north of the Tarrant County Courthouse.
The channel would create a center island, to be known as Panther Island. A San Antonio-style riverwalk and new recreation amenities are among the planned improvements.
During the 14 years that the project has been underway, the cost has ballooned from initial estimates of $360 million to the current level of $1.16 billion. Community activists have pushed back against the cost and scope of the project, labeling it “The Boondoggle.”
Voters approved a $250 million bond issue last year for this project and it’s possible some of that money could go toward digging the channel, officials said. The Fort Worth City Council has yet to decide whether a tax finance district that was created to support development of the project should be extended from 40 to 50 years to provide extra time to pay off the bond debt.
In another potential setback, the schedule for the project’s three bridges could change again. Last month, a construction contractor announced that the White Settlement bridge, furthest along, is expected to be finished by late summer 2020. The North Main bridge is expected to be completed in “late winter” of 2021 and the Henderson Road bridge is targeted to be finished in late spring of 2021.
But TRVA board members learned that the Texas Department of Transportation had not signed off on that time frame and is “doing a deep dive on the schedule,” Loyl Bussell, Fort Worth District engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, told the board.