TRWD board meets, discusses federal funding issues for Trinity River project

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On the heels of an announcement that Fort Worth’s Panther Island project was again denied federal funds in the 2019 federal budget, Tarrant Regional Water District officials attempted Tuesday to defuse mounting concerns about the project’s fate.

The massive $1.1 billion project remains on schedule and is progressing with local funds and careful appropriation of previously allocated federal dollars, said J.D. Granger, executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority, which manages the project for the TRWD.

During a meeting on Tuesday morning, TRWD officials discussed the funding issues. 

Jim Oliver, executive director of the Tarrant Regional Water District, acknowledged that federal funding is a “hiccup lately” in advancing the project.

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Boards of directors of the TRWD and the TRVA have separately approved a “programmatic review” of the project after it was announced that federal funds were not appropriated in 2018 for the project.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price was the first to raise alarms about the federal funds after meeting with federal officials in Washington, who she said told her the project didn’t meet the standard for federal flood control funds because it is an economic development project as well as flood protection.

After Price’s call for a comprehensive review of the project, the TRWD and TRVA board agreed to support the review.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers previously green-lighted the project, a move that made it eligible for federal funding from the Corps budget. In a recent announcement, the only North Texas project that will receive Corps funding in 2019 is dam repair at Lewisville Lake.

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Because of the safety threat that a hole in the Lewisville Lake dam presents to the region, it is understandable that the Lewisville project would receive funding, along with other cities across the country with similar dam safety issues, ahead of Panther Island, Granger said.

“We’ve been told we’re going to get the money,” Granger said. Granger said he inquired about any other projects in past that were approved by the Corps for funding and then were denied. “I was told there weren’t any.”

TRWD board member James Hill has been an outspoken advocate for the comprehensive review and continues to see it as a necessity.

“We need to see whether we have the proper procedures and people in place to make sure we get that money,” Hill said. “We can’t get ahead of ourselves by assuming things and not get the additional funds.”

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Price has said the project may need to be refocused to concentrate solely on flood control.

When the planning process began nearly 20 years ago, the idea of channeling the Trinity River north of downtown Fort Worth and creating a center island along with off-site retention holding areas was proposed as an alternative to shoring up aging levees that could someday pose a flooding threat.

The plan would resolve flood control worries and create new economic development opportunities similar to San Antonio’s renowned riverwalk, which relies on the same channel flood control approach, Oliver said.

Through creation of a Tax Increment Finance district, money raised within the Panther Island district would repay local debt so there would be no additional cost to taxpayers.

But the linchpin of the plan has been about $585 million in federal funding.

To date, the project has received about $108 million in federal funds from the Corps, the Federal Highway Administration and other federal appropriations. Some of that money has gone into three bridges currently under construction that would eventually cross the channel but now are being built over dry land.

But when the remaining $480 million in federal funds will arrive is still largely uncertain.

That’s why Price, Hill and others want to re-examine the scope of the project and possibly scale it back.

Oliver said reverting to a plan of raising the levees would require a local tax increase and would “wipe out hundreds of homes” in the process.

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