In The News

Trinity Uptown bridges in Fort Worth will initially span dirt, not water

by Gordon Dickson | Sep 18, 2013

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH — They’re not exactly bridges to nowhere, but when three new bridges in Fort Worth’s massive Trinity Uptown project are complete in a few years, they are likely to span dirt instead of water.

Supporters of the project, which includes rerouting the Trinity River north of downtown, say it’s all part of their long-term plan: The project is on schedule, and the federal money to dig a new flood control channel will arrive when needed.

Critics, however, point out that Congress is in no mood to release funds for local projects, even those favored by a powerful advocate like U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth. Building the bridges without securing the millions needed to complete the project is putting taxpayers at risk, they say.

If the ambitious flood control and economic development plan works, Trinity Uptown — which officials are likely to rename Panther Island in honor of the city’s legendary nickname — would dwarf downtown Fort Worth and could emerge as one of the hottest waterfront developments in the southwestern United States.

“This is a long-term project,” said Vic Henderson, who serves on the board of the Trinity River Vision Authority and is chairman of its main partner in the project, the Tarrant Regional Water District. “We do not feel the funding will stop. It’s a recognized flood control project for the Corps [of Engineers]. But funding may slow down at times.

“If it does, being a long-term project, our activity will slow down. We’ll just adjust accordingly.”

The new Trinity River channel will create an 800-acre island for waterfront development on the city’s near north side, officials say. The $81.3 million needed to build the bridges is in hand, and construction on the first one, on Henderson Street, could begin as soon as January.

The bridges on Henderson Street, North Main Street and White Settlement Road are scheduled to be completed by 2017.

Fort Worth is counting on Congress to eventually provide about half the $910 million needed to finish the sweeping project.

But it’s not clear when — some say if — all the federal funds will come.

“In this constrained funding environment, we must focus on projects that have the greatest impacts on life safety. The result is, we have insufficient federal funding to continue the project at this time,” said Brig. Gen. Thomas Kula, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Southwestern Division, which includes Texas.

Kula said his agency has a $60 billion backlog of projects nationwide.

“But, by utilizing available nonfederal funding, we continue to work with our local, state and other federal agencies to construct and design the Trinity River Vision plan.”

In the long term, the Trinity River Vision Authority expects the corps to pay $411.6 million to dig the new channel, build floodgates and water storage areas, and make other improvements. So far, the corps is authorized to perform only a fraction of that work — $110 million — and has actually chipped in only $28.7 million to date.

As a result, those working on the plan acknowledge that they could wind up with a trio of bridges spanning little more than dry vacant land for years.

The timetable for digging the channel and making the other flood control improvements is less certain. Even by optimistic projections, that work likely won’t be finished until 2023 — two years later than the previous target date.

J.D. Granger, executive director of the authority, said the project won’t need full funding from the corps for many years. Right now, supporters are simply seeking Congress’ approval to build the channel, making it eligible for actual funding, he said.

“We couldn’t spend more than $400 million in one year because we’d have to move 800 million cubic yards of dirt,” he said. “It’s impossible.”

Several local agencies have contributed tens of millions of dollars — allowing for slow but steady progress.

Dwarfing downtown

The Trinity Uptown/Panther Island project involves building a new 1.5-mile-long channel for the Trinity River, near the convergence of the West Fork and Clear Fork, and around the city’s near north side and Gateway Park. The project includes construction of a 33-acre urban lake, floodgates and floodwater storage areas.

Once the improvements to roads, waterways and utilities are made, officials hope to clear the way for private development of 3 million square feet of commercial space and 10,000 mixed-income households.

So far, nearly half the property needed for the entire project has been bought, with $59.8 million spent on land acquisitions, of $134.8 million budgeted, and $11.9 million spent on relocations, of $45.5 million budgeted.

Many former commercial areas near White Settlement Road and Henderson Street have been cleared to make way for construction of the bridges and, eventually, the new channel. Also, city crews are moving utilities.

The Trinity River Vision Authority is 95 percent finished with land purchases needed for the bridges and channel, but it will hold off on buying land for other parts, such as control gates and a downstream dam, until that property is needed, spokesman Matt Oliver said.

To date, 75 businesses have been relocated. More than 80 percent have stayed in Fort Worth, Oliver said.

No more earmarks

Authority officials say their project will get high marks from the government for improving flood control for future generations. And, they say, it’s a unique partnership that involves the use of state, county, city and other local funds to cover half the overall cost — something decision-makers in Washington will appreciate as they try to stretch federal dollars.

Kay Granger said she is optimistic that the project can be built on schedule.

“I am committed to doing everything I can to see the Trinity River Vision Project become a reality for our community,” said Granger, who is J.D. Granger’s mother. “The Army Corps of Engineers is currently authorized to build this project as the funds become available.

“I am pleased that the transportation improvements are on schedule and that all funding for the three bridges has been secured by federal, state and local stakeholders.”

Congress has banned earmarks for the past three years and will likely do so for several more. That makes it hard for supporters of Trinity Uptown/Panther Island to make their case for federal funding when judged against so many other flood control projects needed nationwide, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington group that opposes earmarks.

“I don’t see the earmark ban being lifted in this Congress or anytime past that because it’s politically unpopular,” Ellis said. “It’s going to be challenging to be the first member of Congress to say, ‘Yeah, I think we should go back to that parochial spending.’”

Local help

Supporters boast that the project is progressing because multiple agencies are working together and sharing the costs.

They also say they’re saving millions of dollars by building the bridges on dry land now rather than waiting until the new channel is dug and filled with water.

Most of the bridges’ cost will be covered by federal funds awarded to the Texas Department of Transportation and the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

Those agencies and other local partners have been quick to dedicate their share of funding while waiting for the federal government to allocate its part. A review of Trinity River Vision Authority reports shows that local and state agencies have spent, or will soon spend, most of the money pledged to the project.

Fort Worth has contributed more than $14 million of its $26.6 million budgeted, according to a finance report reflecting transfers through July. Tarrant County has paid $8 million of its $11 million pledge.

The water district, which provides water to more than 2 million residents, including most of Tarrant County, has not only contributed its full $64.4 million but also loaned an additional $42.8 million — interest-free.

That loan, from the water district’s natural gas funds, is expected to be repaid with money from a tax increment financing district set up to capture property tax revenue as the area develops.

In all, the water district has agreed to loan a total of about $226 million interest-free to help keep the project moving, Henderson said.

The federal dollars include $10 million in economic development and housing funds, $4.5 million of which has been spent.

But the biggest piece is budgeted by the Corps of Engineers — $411.6 million

Additional funding could become available under a bill being debated in Congress known as the Water Resources Development Act, although not in the form of an earmark.

Taxpayers on the hook?

Many residents who have criticized the project from the outset worry that their greatest fear is coming true — that costs are escalating and, with federal funds drying up, local taxpayers will be left footing the bill.

“We don’t know when it’s going to be done, how much money we’re going to get back, or how much it’s going to cost,” said Clyde Picht, a former Fort Worth councilman.

“The taxpayers are in an upside-down loan already. We’re not going to be able to sell that baby for half what they put into it. Somebody will make money, but I’m sure it’s not going to be the taxpayers. The taxpayers are being taken to the cleaners,” Picht said.

But that’s not the way Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius sees it. Maenius, who chairs the Trinity River Vision Authority board, said building the bridges now makes the project a stronger candidate for federal funds once the debate over flood control dollars in Washington is settled.

“We feel confident the federal dollars will be there for the federal government to build that bypass channel. Our time frame is for the next couple or three years,” he said. “The bypass channel will not be completed for at least seven years.

“We’ve worked with our representatives in Congress to ensure they understand how important this is.”

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