Folks like to say “all politics is local” but, for Fort Worth, politics just became national.
The Trinity River project, aka Panther Island, and its Trinity River Vision Authority and the Tarrant Regional Water District are now in the sights of the national media. The stonewalling and no-comment attitudes of those charged with governance will come under the glare of an unrelenting series of questions by folks they cannot duck.
Fort Worth does not need to become a national example of a government project close to being washed up. We do not need to be known as the city that has three multimillion dollar bridges under construction with no water running under them and rapidly diminishing hopes of ever seeing water under them.
We do not need to be the butt of jokes by late-night TV talk show hosts about a city where a powerful congresswoman’s son is running a mismanaged project that will drown unless his mother and taxpayers can rescue it.
After years of benign neglect, local news outlets have lately taken to stirring up interest in Panther Island and the efforts of one of them, NBC affiliate Channel 5, propelled the flood control/economic development project into the national spotlight by catching the eye of a reporter at Roll Call, the prestigious print and online news organization that specializes in coverage of Congress and is widely read by Washington insiders.
In a Dec. 4 web post, Roll Call staff writer Griffin Connolly commented on some mind-boggling remarks that Panther Island honcho J.D. Granger made in an interview with Channel 5 – remarks so cavalier and drenched in arrogance that they couldn’t help but draw the attention of Washington power brokers whose help Granger’s mother, Fort Worth Congresswoman Kay Granger, will need if she is to secure federal funds that are desperately needed to complete Panther Island. Kay Granger has been tabbed to become the top Republican member of the crucial House Appropriations Committee when Congress convenes in January but the November elections gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives so she will have much less power to steer money toward the local project than if her party had retained its majority.
Granger’s son, who manages the project as head of the Trinity River Vision Authority, apparently didn’t see it that way, however, at least according to his comments reported by Channel 5 on Dec. 3. Granger said his mother’s new job in Congress all but assured her ability to deliver money for Panther Island and in fact would put the project on “autopilot.”
"Our goal, our commitment to this community, was to get this project on auto pilot. When this thing is on autopilot we both get to retire. I'm out of here," he said.
Oops. The very next day, even before Roll Call’s report had circulated through the halls of Congress, Kay Granger’s office issued a statement saying she has no plans to retire and J.D. Granger was telling both Channel 5 and Roll Call he “misspoke” in predicting her retirement. He also backed away from his autopilot boast.
“While the congresswoman’s recent appointment ... is great news for Fort Worth,” he told the TV station, “it does not guarantee remaining federal funds needed to complete the project.”
Well, he got that part right. Local officials were told during a recent visit to the White House that the outlook for federal funding is extremely bleak. The projected cost of the project that would divert flood water by rerouting the river and also create an urban lake and San Antonio-style river walk has ballooned from less than $400 million to $1.1 billion, more than half of which is supposed to come from the federal government. But the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the project that began as a flood control program, has not committed any money to it this year or next. Recent news reports indicate that federal officials are concerned that the economic development aspect of the project – originally seen as a benefit of the flood control plan, not the reason for it – has swallowed up the entire project and cast doubt on the government’s rationale for pursuing it.
Lately, the project’s lack of federal funding has drawn scrutiny but money is not the only issue here.
Looming like a dark cloud over the River Vision’s hoped-for development bonanza is the appalling lack of transparency surrounding the water district, its executives and its board of directors. Because the project was conceived as flood control, the water district was given responsibility for it and the result has been a disaster from day one.
Taxpayers, media outlets, elected officials and even the occasional skeptic on the water board itself have tried to wrestle information about the project out of the water district but district officials have consistently stonewalled, refusing to answer questions, even at public meetings, and forcing the curious to file expensive and time-consuming requests under freedom of information laws.
The situation has been intolerable for a long time and until now no one has been able to penetrate the water district wall of secrecy.
But things could be starting to turn. With the project now facing an independent review demanded by Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and with national media outlets like Roll Call suddenly showing an interest in what was previously a local fiasco, the veil might be on the verge of being lifted.
No one wants Fort Worth turned into a joke. Government is meant to be practiced in the open. It is time, as they sang back in the revolutionary1960s, to let the sunshine in.”
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at email@example.com