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Government Panther Island review delayed for staff briefings; Mayor calls for public release

Panther Island review delayed for staff briefings; Mayor calls for public release

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Release of the findings of a comprehensive review of the $1.17 billion Panther Island project has been postponed so that Trinity River Vision officials and board members have a chance to craft a response.

G.K. Maenius, Tarrant County administrator and Trinity River Vision Authority board president, announced Wednesday that the review is complete but he made the decision to delay public release of the report until board members have a chance to read it, ask questions and confer with staffers about its contents.

“Because of the complexity of the report, I made the decision that it is in the best interest of this organization to give everyone a chance to respond,” Maenius said. “I know some of you may be upset with me but this is the best decision for this agency and I made it.”

The TRVA board, a subsidiary of the Tarrant Regional Water District, is made up of elected officials and top executives from the water district, the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.

Dallas-based Riveron, the consulting firm that conducted the comprehensive review, had finished the report on Wednesday as promised and had been scheduled to give a presentation to the TRV board.

Several board members expressed disappointment with Maenius’ decision to postpone the public presentation and dismay with his recommendation to reschedule it Aug. 9.

“I’m not there with waiting 30 days,” said Fort Worth City Council member Carlos Flores, a TRVA board member.

“We came here today expecting to hear from Riveron,” said Fort Worth City Manager and TRVA board member David Cooke. “The consultant was supposed to present and go back and forth with us so we could understand the document.”

James Hill, a TRVA and TRWD board member, said the postponement would be confusing to the public because it was publicly announced that the review would take 90 days and the report would be released on Wednesday.

Mayor Betsy Price, who called for the review last year, also expressed disappointment at the delay.

“I have just received the Riveron report as of this afternoon, but have not had an opportunity to review it yet,” she said in a statement Thursday. “Like many of you, I fully expected the report to be released yesterday at the TRVA meeting, as promised. A 30-day internal review period was not part of the timeline presented – and, rightfully so, Fort Worth taxpayers are frustrated.

“As Mayor, I called for this review because our residents, taxpayers and businesses demanded more transparency surrounding the Panther Island project. This independent report is an opportunity to clear up concerns, alleviate frustration among residents and, most importantly, help provide a path forward for this critical project. I am calling for the timely and transparent release of this report.”

Maenius said the report is about 90 pages long, very complex and requires a “deep dive.” Between 30 and 40 people were interviewed by the consultants, who also looked at a multitude of documents.

He promised that consultant would do a public presentation and answer questions.

Jim Oliver, executive director of the TRWD, said it is customary in these situations to release a complex report to staff to check for errors and omissions prior to a public release.

Some board members raised concerns about transparency since board members would send input separately, raising the possibility of alterations to the document.

TRV Executive Director J.D. Granger expressed concern about misinformation being communicated through the media if the report wasn’t vetted before its public release.

“This is an independent study,” Maenius said. “You can’t change a recommendation because someone wants something changed.”

Those opposed to postponing release of the review and presentation, also expressed concerns about financial matters that might be included in the recommendations. The TRV board is set to conduct a budget workshop on July 31.

Maenius agreed to schedule the report’s release and presentation to a date earlier than Aug. 9 if everyone turns in their personal reviews quicker.

The TRVA board awarded Riveron a contract for $466,222 in April to spend about three months examining all aspects of the Panther Island project also known as the Central City project.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers endorsed the project in 2016, opening the door for federal funding of $526 million to dig a 1.5-mile bypass channel on the Trinity River north of the Tarrant County Courthouse. That channel would add flood control protection as well as carve out an 800-acre center island, which would create waterfront economic development opportunities.

But the project has only been appropriated about $60 million so far and prospects for funding continue to appear dismal in the short-term.

The Corps confirmed in April that the Trump administration’s 2020 funding priorities for flood control and water projects did not include Panther Island. Should Congress follow this recommendation and omit Panther Island from its Corps appropriation, this would be the fourth consecutive funding cycle that the project has been overlooked.

The TRVA’s budget includes $26 million in federal funding in 2020 and another $35 million federal dollars for 2021.

About $324 million in local tax money has already been spent on the project, including a $200 million loan from the TRWD. Local funds are being stretched through this fiscal year to keep the project solvent.

So far, Riveron has been paid $150,000. The consultant said it may not seek the full amount for the review.

Last month, Kevin Ruiz, a Riveron senior management consultant, told the TRVA board there were no “red flags,” pointing to evidence of fraud or malfeasance.

Ruiz also presented highlights of Riveron’s 12 key findings regarding the project, including the uncertainty of federal funding, which has to do with the complexity of the project.

The project was envisioned about 15 years ago when its scope was smaller and had fewer participants, Ruiz said at the time.

“The growth of the project in scope, size and complexity has created a need for greater discipline and structure,” he said.

Other findings indicate ill-defined roles of the various agencies involved in the project, including the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County, the water district and Trinity River Vision Authority.

The need for improved management and transparency was also among findings as was the need for better and consistent communication, with the focus being on flood control and public safety rather than other factors such as economic development.

In other matters, city officials were still unable to present a reliable schedule for the three Panther Island bridges that are under construction. The Texas Department of Transportation was due to receive an updated schedule from Sterling Construction, the bridge, contractor, by June 30.

Frank Hill, attorney for Sterling, told frustrated White Settlement Road business owners on July 2 that design issues with the bridges have prevented the contractor from issuing a delivery date to TxDOT.

Freese and Nichols, the engineering firm for the bridge project, has denied that the design is to blame for the bridges’ tardiness. The bridges had originally been scheduled to be finished in 2018.

TxDOT has acknowledged design problems have occurred during the construction project

The current schedule has completion on a staggered schedule between 2020 and 2021.

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