The latest news on the Trinity River Vision aka Panther Island flood control/economic development project could be a laughing matter but it isn’t.
The federal government announced it has allocated $1.5 million for a feasibility study of the river project and said it could take up to three years to complete. Local officials were hoping for millions more to go toward construction of a bypass channel that would reroute the river as the key piece of the flood-control portion of the project.
This comes after 20 years of planning, demolition and construction, including three still-unfinished bridges .
So what will a feasibility tell us about this plan that is now expected to cost taxpayers $1.17 billion, if and when it is ever completed? We can only hope that it doesn’t tell us the whole thing has been a waste of time and money. Longtime critics would get to say “we told you so” but it would be an expensive boast – local taxing entities, including the city of Fort Worth, have poured more than $300 million into this boondoggle while waiting for the federal government to cough up the $500 million-plus it has promised but never delivered.
Even if you long ago gave up hope the project would be completed and grew frustrated with the mismanagement and shenanigans at the local agencies responsible for getting it done – the Tarrant Regional Water District and its subsidiary the Trinity River Vision Authority – this latest news must have left you scratching your head.
It would seem that a feasibility study should have been done before the first shovel went into the ground.
The river vision plan was pushed from the beginning by U.S. Rep. and former Fort Worth Mayor Kay Granger, who early on had her son J.D. Granger installed as executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority, which has day-to-day management responsibility for the project.
For all practical purposes the project became unfeasible at that point. The stench of cronyism and nepotism while playing with taxpayer money has polluted Panther Island ever since. J.D. Granger was recently demoted and a professional project manager was hired but it may have been far too little and far too late.
Meanwhile, amid the controversy over hundreds of millions spent, cost overruns and ever-evolving completion dates for the unfinished bridges, local elective politics has come into play. There may be a chasm developing that even a bridge cannot fix.
Granger is facing a costly and brutal challenge in the Republican primary from Chris Putnam, a former Colleyville city councilman and hard-core conservative who is blasting the incumbent on a daily basis as a corrupt closet-liberal who has “gone Washington.” Insiders say Granger still holds a lead in her own polling, but the numbers are slipping.
She is concerned her reign may end, according to those she speaks with, but she is remaining largely out of sight. Neither she nor her office has been responding to questions about the river project and her inability to corral federal money to complete it.
With Granger under fire, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price has yet to endorse the congresswoman for re-election. President Donald Trump has endorsed Granger, but the mayor remains silent and on the sidelines.
If the mayor remains silent the potential fallout could be significant.
The water district and its board of directors – with the exception of relative newcomers James Hill and Leah King – continue to insist that Granger will ultimately deliver the much-needed money. Price has traveled to Washington to lobby for the project but now seems to be looking for other sources of help.
“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.”
Fort Worth has long been a model for private-public partnerships, the most recent example being the new Dickies Arena.
But it is difficult to imagine who locally would want to invest in this debacle. When the subject comes up the name immediately brought to the fore is “the Bass family.” In today’s world that usually means one Bass – Ed Bass. Having conceived, overseen and raised the money for the arena it seems unlikely Ed Bass would take this on, but he is smart, community-minded and a maverick.
Another likely private partner could be John Goff, who is a financier and knows real estate like the back of his hand.
But the list will be short.
So, what to do? For starters, officials should take water board member Hill’s advice to “take a pause.” The water board has been using short-term debt known as “commercial paper” to keep the project afloat but, at the moment at least, that seems to be throwing good money after bad.
Maybe it’s time for folks to catch their breath, see if Granger survives the March 3 primary, explore Price’s idea of a public-private partnership and stop setting taxpayers’ money on fire until there’s a plan in place to get Panther Island back on track – or give it up, with all the potential consequences that would entail.
Eventually this disaster has to be cleaned up. And the people who made the mess will have to be held accountable.
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org