Trinity River Vision: Funding fights in future

JACK Z. SMITH Special Projects Reporter

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A framework of local funding is in place for Fort Worth’s $909.9 million Trinity Uptown project, which aims to strengthen flood control and transform a dreary old industrial area north of downtown into a trendy residential and commercial waterfront development. The situation is much more dicey in terms of federal funding being sought to pay roughly half the cost of the massive public infrastructure project. U.S. Rep. Kay Granger (R-Fort Worth), in an e-mail response to questions from the Fort Worth Business Press, said she is “confident we will get the funding necessary for completion of this project.”

Former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Republican, and former Congressman Martin Frost, a Democrat, both say, however, that it could be very difficult to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money for the Uptown project, given the huge budget deficits and spending constraints facing Congress. “It’s going to be tough,” said Armey, a resident of southwest Denton County. “I think the best you can hope for is to get enough money to keep the project alive and on line for the next few years. That’s not going to be a small accomplishment. …There’s rigorous competition for every dollar. “I would posit that they have a good chance of keeping the project alive with nominal grants of money. … If they got a $50 million grant per annum they would be doing as much as anybody could dare hope,” said Armey, who represented various parts of North Central Texas from 1985 to 2003.

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Frost, who represented part of Tarrant County as a congressman from 1979-2005 and now lives in Virginia, said the tight federal budget situation makes it “hard to get money” for local projects. Both Armey and Frost said, however, that prospects for federal funding for the Trinity Uptown project are brightened because Granger is on the House Appropriations Committee, which doles out billions of dollars in discretionary funding for projects. “It’s always good to have someone on the Appropriations Committee to help with these things … and Kay is very capable,” Frost said. Armey said Granger is “extremely well-placed” on the Appropriations Committee and well-regarded by colleagues, including GOP House Speaker John Boehner. “She’s got the positive schmooze with the leadership and the people on the committee,” Armey said. Granger still must cope with a tough Washington environment in which special funding “earmarks” for pet projects have been curtailed, the national debt is approaching $17 trillion and there are looming funding crises for Social Security and Medicare. The budget outline for Trinity Uptown calls for $487.9 million in “non-local” funding, with the lion’s share to come from Uncle Sam. A total of $411.6 million is being sought just for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is leading the public infrastructure project, which would establish a long-term system of expanded flood control and enable redevelopment of 800 acres of Fort Worth’s Near North Side, just north of downtown. An additional $76.3 million in non-local funding for Trinity Uptown is projected to come from a mix of federal and state monies. Thus far, only about $59 million in federal aid has been doled out. The Corps has received only $28.7 million for what it calls the Central City Project but which is widely known to the general public as Trinity Uptown. The Trinity River Vision Authority, coordinating the project with the Corps and local governments, is considering a new name, Panther Island, for the 800-acre redevelopment area that is now pockmarked with old, vacant industrial sites.

Local funding of $422 million is targeted for Trinity Uptown, with $320 million pegged to come from the Trinity River Vision Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District. These dollars would come from projected annual increases in tax revenues within the TIF, based on rising property values in the 800-acre area, which borders on Fort Worth’s renascent downtown and vibrant West Seventh Street corridor. The TIF district includes the 800-acre site and surrounding areas. Fort Worth, Tarrant County, the Tarrant Regional Water District, Tarrant County Hospital District and Tarrant County College District are TIF members contributing to the project. In addition to the TIF money, the water district is separately providing $64.4 million; Fort Worth, $26.6 million; and Tarrant County, $11 million. The Uptown project is to carve out a 1.5- mile bypass channel on the Trinity River and construct a hydraulic dam and other infrastructure that would create a stable, constant water level in the Uptown area and 12 miles of waterfront. That, plus removal of some levees, could trigger private residential and commercial development at the water’s edge. The public infrastructure improvements are targeted for completion in 2023, with adjustments for anticipated inflation already built into the $909.9 million price tag. The lengthy timetable allows more time for securing federal money. The funding climate in Washington could become more favorable if the economy keeps growing, tax revenues rise and budget deficits shrink. Granger said the Corps and its partners currently have sufficient funding to proceed with the project. Construction is to start by early next year on new Henderson Street, Main Street and White Settlement Road bridges that will go over the bypass channel, which is to be completed later. Granger said she expects that “the Corps will have the capacity to take on additional construction efforts when the design of the bypass [channel] is completed and the bridges are finished in approximately three years.” By then, Granger said, Congress probably will have crafted a new process for funding water projects and Uptown will “meet the criteria for federal funding,” making it “eligible and shovel-ready to continue construction of a vitally important public safety project that will provide needed flood protection for our community.”

Fort Worth “is growing at a record pace and has outgrown our current levee system,” she said. “So flooding is only a matter of time. We are working hard to address the problem before tragedy occurs, like what has happened to Colorado and Louisiana.” Annual federal funding for Uptown would vary depending on how much work the Corps could handle, Granger said. The project’s federal funding prospects are buttressed because it currently “meets all standard eligibility criteria,” Granger said, with environmental impact studies completed, public hearings held, local funding partners lined up, dirt already being moved and all funding for the three bridges secured by federal, state and local stakeholders. Skeptics remain. Former Tarrant County Republican Party Chairman Steve Hollern, a Fort Worth resident, said, “They’re about to start work on three bridges, which means they [will] have bridges over dry land. … They’re building bridges over a bypass channel that doesn’t exist at this point … and for which they do not have the funding.” “I think what they’re trying to do is to get the project so far along … that they can say, hey, we can’t stop it now … we can’t abandon the project now,” Hollern said. If the project doesn’t get enough federal money, Hollern said, he expects local taxpayers to be asked to close the funding gap. Former Fort Worth City Councilman Clyde Picht said, in an August interview with the Business Press, that he doubts the project “will ever get fully done” as it originally was envisioned. Taxpayers “have been sold a bill of goods,” he said. As Trinity Uptown awaits more federal money, it is being shored up by the Tarrant Regional Water District, which agreed in 2010 to loan the Trinity River Vision TIF money for the project on an as-needed basis. The agreement provides that the loan balance can never exceed $226 million and caps at $320 million the total amount that the TRWD can loan the TIF over the life of the project. Currently, the loan balance is slightly under $43.5 million and the water district board has approved lending an additional $59.9 million to the project for the 2014 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The money is to come from natural gas and oil royalties from district properties. Vic Henderson, water district board president, acknowledges that “it’s anybody’s guess” as to how much federal funding Trinity Uptown might receive and when the money would come. But he said the project has an advantage over many others vying for federal aid because it already is well under way and includes a major federal agency, the Corps of Engineers, as a partner. The Uptown project “can be accelerated at some times, and slowed down at some times,” depending on federal funding levels, Henderson said.

Barbara Becker, dean of the University of Texas at Arlington School of Urban and Public Affairs, is a Trinity Uptown backer who is confident there will be enough federal funding for it. “Things right now might be a little tough,” she said, but Uptown is “a very long-term effort.” The issue of federal funding “is not going to make or break this project,” she said. It would be a big mistake to scale back the project and lower its quality as a result of difficulty in getting federal funding, she added. “Your hope is that they don’t do that,” Becker said. “That would be the tragedy. … What’s important is holding that vision. In good times and bad times you can take steps forward. You have to keep your eye on that final goal.”

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