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Panther Island back in line for federal funding after Betsy Price’s White House meeting

July 27,2019

See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Luke Ranker here.

Fort Worth’s Panther Island, which has received minimal federal dollars for more than a decade, could get a windfall of at least $250 million after Mayor Betsy Price met with senior White House staff.

Price and U.S. Rep. Roger Williams met Tuesday with Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director and acting chief of staff, with the goal of understanding how the project could move up in the Trump Administration’s budget priorities. Though authorized by Congress, the project totaling more than $1.17 billion has been left out of recent White House budgets.

But after meeting with Mulvaney and his team, Price said Saturday she had renewed confidence the Trinity River bypass channel would receive funding again.

“They gave us a strong indication they were willing to work with us on it,” Price said Saturday. “We’ll have to wait and see how the details come together, but this is a foot in the door.”

Congress in 2016 authorized up to $526 million for Panther Island, but the Trump administration has been unwilling to budget funds, saying a cost-benefit analysis is needed. Army Corps of Engineers projects like the bypass channel typically receive such a study before authorization.

Williams, whose district stretches from Austin to Burleson, said an amount of at least $250 million was discussed, though the White House wanted clear indications the focus would be on flood control and safety.

“We really wanted to talk to them about the bypass channel,” Price said. “That’s the flood control piece and our major concern.”

Since the project’s birth around 2004, it has been billed as both flood control and economic development.

A roughly 1.5-mile channel would expedite the flow of water where the two forks of the Trinity River meet, protecting roughly 2,400 acres. Meanwhile, the channel would create 800-acre urban island north of downtown Fort Worth, opening the door to lucrative riverfront development in the heart of the city.

It’s unclear when the money would arrive and if it would be in a lump sum or be doled out.

If the project receives all of the money at once it would be the largest sum provided — more than four times what has arrived from Washington since inception.

While local taxpayers have fronted about $325 million for the non-federal portion of the project, the federal half has received just $65 million. About $116 million has been committed when including both federal and state dollars. The bypass channel alone, not including dam and lock construction, amounts to about $160.2 million, according to second quarter 2019 financial statements.

Price asked Williams to facilitate the meeting because of his strong relationship with the White House budget office, she said. Price has visited the White House before, including last fall shortly before she called for an independent review of Panther Island.

Williams said he has long supported the project and wanted to help Price get on the same page with the White House.

Mulvaney was clear and candid, Williams said.

“It was a good meeting that went right to the source with Mr. Mulvaney,” he said. “I think this is has outlined a way to move the project forward.”

The meeting comes about two weeks after a consultant’s report found confusion surrounding the project and suggested changes to the management structure overseeing the project. Dallas-based Riveron’s study noted that improving management and planning could “further the potential for future federal contributions.”

The study, while saying there was no malfeasance or wrongdoing, found the project failed to plan for funding changes and other obstacles.

It also noted that the public views Panther Island as three projects in one — flood control, economic development and recreation.

“This creates a problem not only in terms of identifying responsible parties but also in obtaining federal funding because the (Army Corps) is not permitted to spend federal dollars on local economic development,” the report said.

The report suggests splitting recreation and real estate development into a separate nonprofit so the water district can focus on flood control. The idea has not been discussed officially with the Tarrant Regional Water District or the Trinity River Vision Authority. The water district is the local partner with the Army Corps and the authority acts as a coordinating body.

Jim Oliver, water district manager, did not immediately return a call for comment.

Price’s White House meeting is a change in how Fort Worth has traditionally lobbied for Panther Island.

Since the mid-2000s locals have relied on U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, a strong advocate for the project, to secure federal dollars. She is the top Republican in the House Appropriations committee, and her son, J.D. Granger, is the Trinity River Vision authority’s executive director.

Kay Granger’s office did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

Location Mentioned: Panther Island Pavilion