Local partners in the beleaguered $1.17 billon Panther Island project will pay $5 million of the $20 million in cost overruns for the three unfinished bridges in Fort Worth.
The Regional Transportation Council, a 44-member governing agency within the North Central Texas Council of Governments, (NCTCOG) on Thursday unanimously approved a plan to reimburse the Texas Department of Transportation for the $20 million the state paid the bridge contractor last December to cover cost overruns.
Under the new agreement, $15 million will come from a federal block grant and state funds and the $5 million balance will be paid by the Panther Island project partners. The project partners, including the Tarrant Regional Water District, the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant Count, will have 10 years to repay their share.
The Surface Transportation Technical Committee, a group of 80 members who are mostly city engineers as well as technical staffers from the area, endorsed the plan during a meeting on Feb. 28.
In recent presentations to the Fort Worth City Council and at a public meeting at NCTCOG headquarters, Michael Morris, director of transportation for the Council of Governments has said the cost of the bridges has escalated by $19.4 million from $69.9 million to $89.3 million.
Morris has requested $20 million to cover other anticipated costs.
Although additional cost overruns are not expected, Morris said there “could be something else” in response to a question from an RTC member.
Morris also told the RTC that Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke and Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius offered to put in the $5 million to go toward the cost overrun.
Anticipated economic development revenue from creation of Panther Island would cover the $5 million over the next decade.
The block grant will come from funding allocated to the “western side” for the region, Morris said.
Panther Island project partners have steadfastly maintained that the cost of the bridges was fully covered and that no extra payments would be made until the bridge construction was complete.
But bridge construction has dragged on beyond the original completion date of 2018 as a result of ongoing delays resulting from the bridge design challenges, according to a spokesman for the contractor, Sterling Construction Co. of Houston.
“TxDOT paid their contractor to resolve all issues and expedite completion of the bridges,” Morris has stated.
Morris has also stated that the he and two other top transportation leaders in Fort Worth initially rejected V-pier design that is being constructed for the three bridges on While Settlement Road and North Main and Henderson streets.
Instead, he and two others favored the “brilliant” in-house design of a TxDOT engineer for the 7th Street bridge, Morris said.
But Morris said that battle was lost over the fact that modeling the 7th Street design for the Panther Island bridges would take three years and would slow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ work on digging the bypass channel to create Panther Island.
Furthermore, Morris said he and the two others pushed for a “common” V-pier design in which all the piers are a similar size. That, too, was rejected due to the slowing the bypass channel timeline, he said.
“We did not want to delay the hundreds of millions of dollars” going into this project, Morris said.
He also said that he expected that the bridges would cost about $90 million.
Ironically, the channel on the Trinity River north of downtown Fort Worth has been delayed “for some other reasons” since those design discussions nearly 10 years ago, he said.
Morris also told the RTC that Panther Island will have regional benefits beyond flood control protection for Fort Worth. Valley storage being created at Gateway Park will also help mitigate downstream flooding as rainfall rates and more frequent severe storms are occurring in North Texas.
Movement toward creating the bypass channel has slowed to a crawl since the partner agencies have not received construction funds through the Army Corps’ budget for the past three years.
The partners were hoping for about $10 million in a federal appropriation this year to design the channel that would the replace the aging levees and create Panther Island.
Instead, the partners learned early last month that was allocated $1.5 million to be matched with local money for a feasibility study. The details of that study have yet to be released but the study could take several years to complete.
The partners have invested about $330 million in the Panther Island project and the Army Corps has authorized spending $526 million in federal funds on it.
The project has only been allocated about $68 million in federal funds to date.
The project was a target in the biting GOP primary battle between longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Kay Granger and challenger Chris Putnam. Granger won decisively.
Yet, criticism of Granger continues since she has been unable to move the funding needle despite being the senior ranking member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
Critics target Granger, who has been champion of Panther Island since the beginning nearly two decades ago, with charges of corruption and nepotism because her son, J.D. Granger served as executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority until recently. The TRVA is the management and oversight agency for Panther Island.
Although J.D. Granger has been shuffled into a lesser role with the TRWD, he continues to draw a salary of about $200,000.
Meanwhile, businesses along White Settlement Road have been especially hurt by bridge construction since there is no work-around detour to connect White Settlement to downtown Fort Worth.
The White Settlement bridge is expected to be the first of the first bridge completed. It’s scheduled completion is in December, according to the most recent schedule.
The Henderson and North Main Street bridges are expected to be finished by the end of 2021.
Mayor Betsy Price has been extremely outspoken about bridge construction delays.
“If they’re not (completed on time) my big boot is going to be on somebody’s backside,” she remarked during her Feb. 28 State of the City address.
She also announced that efforts are underway to explore a public/private partnership to develop the area designated as Panther Island.
The TRVA is currently issuing commercial paper bonds to pay critical bills. The TRVA board is expected discuss options moving forward at its April meeting.