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Government Lack of funding for Panther Island in 2020 budget puts project under...

Lack of funding for Panther Island in 2020 budget puts project under pressure

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Already treading water, the $1.17 billion Panther Island project apparently isn’t getting the financial lifeline local officials were hoping to receive this year.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 2020 work plan budget released Monday includes $1.5 million for a “feasibility study” but no money for construction.

The $1.5 million would require a local match to conduct the feasibility study, according to Clay Church, spokesman for the Fort Worth District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

“There were no other funds (construction) made available for the (Panther Island),” Church said in a statement to the Fort Worth Business Press. “We are currently waiting on higher headquarters implementation guidance concerning the feasibility study.

“Feasibility studies traditionally are cost shared 50/50 with a non-federal sponsor so the study would be for $3 million,” he said.

Local partners in the project were hoping for at very least $5 million of the $36.7 million they requested for 2020 to move forward with the project that would improve flood control protection and transform an industrial area north of the Tarrant County Courthouse into a vibrant waterfront community.

Being passed over for construction funds is the latest in a series of setbacks within the last few years. The project was awarded about $68 million under previous presidential administrations but has yet to receive any federal money from President Donald Trump’s administration.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authorized up to $526 million to be spent on the ambitious project, also known as the Central City project. The money would go toward digging a 1.5-mile bypass channel on the Trinity River. The channel would provide flood control protection and create an 800-acre island with waterfront economic development opportunities.

The partner agencies, including the city of Fort Worth and the Tarrant Regional Water District, have already invested $326 million in the project, including a $200 million loan from the TRWD.

With local funds dwindling, local officials took significant steps last year to better position the project for federal funding.

A comprehensive review of the scope of the project resulted in organizational restructuring of the oversight agency, the Trinity River Vision Authority. Among the changes, TRVA executive director J.D. Granger was reassigned to a narrower role with the TRWD. 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.

Besides the reorganization, various local officials, including Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Republican U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, whose District 25 stretches from the southern Fort Worth area to Austin, met have met with Trump administration officials to advocate for federal money for the project.

TRVA board President G. K. Maenius, who is Tarrant County administrator and president of the TRVA board, also met with federal officials to appeal for money.

“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.”

Also, at the end of last year, TRVA hired a former Army Corps executive to serve as the contract project manager for Panther Island.

The Corps’ funding announcement comes as local funds for Panther Island have run out and the TRWD has begun issuing commercial paper to pay bills for the project.

“We are very appreciative that the Trinity River Vision/Panther Island flood control project was allocated funding in the FY 2020 work plan,” said TRWD board President Jack Stevens. “We look forward to working with the Corps to move this important infrastructure project forward. I am still optimistic that the funding will be available at some point in time, as Corps officials still consider this project vital in protecting Fort Worth from flooding. We always knew there was a possibility that there would be gaps in funding on a project of this size.”

TRWD voters approved a $250 million bond issue for the project in 2018. That money is untapped because Fort Worth city officials have balked at extending the term of a tax increment financial district (TIF) to repay the debt.

City Manager David Cooke, who serves on the TRVA board, has yet to budge from his position that adding 10 years to the term of the TIF would be imprudent without a guarantee of federal funds. The TIF is the only mechanism to repay local debt.

The Corps announcement also comes as Kay Granger is facing a tough primary election battle against a challenger who has criticized her methods of shepherding the Panther Island project.

“I applaud the efforts by Mayor Price and Fort Worth city leaders to influence a solution in Washington, D.C., independently of Ms. Granger,” said Chris Putnam, who is challenging Granger. “We must now start over but can do so in the sunlight of complete transparency. And it’s clear that to truly move forward Tarrant County needs new leadership at both the TRWD and in Washington, D.C.”

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