After more than a decade of delays, Fort Worth will finally see significant federal funding for the Panther Island/Central City Flood Project, a key step toward turning a former industrial area north of downtown into a modern mix of homes and retail nestled along the Trinity River.
With billions of dollars in hand from infrastructure legislation passed last fall, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – the agency responsible for building flood protection projects across the country – released its plans for spending the money Wednesday morning.
For the first time, the corps’ construction plans included $403 million for completing final design and building a 1.5-mile bypass channel to reroute part of the Trinity. Regional leaders have long argued that the channel is necessary to protect Fort Worth from a major flooding event.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, the minority leader of the House Appropriations Committee, a former Fort Worth mayor and a longtime champion of Panther Island, said the city will be “safer and stronger” thanks to the corps’ decision.
Other leaders in the region expressed excitement, and some vindication, over a massive step forward for a project that has been in the works since the early 2000s.
Michael Morris, the transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, led the team that financed the three Panther Island bridges, the last of which opened in October after significant delays in construction. The Wednesday announcement caused him to reflect on years of criticism directed at Panther Island.
“This gives me some relief that we did not build our bridges in vain,” Morris said. “That decision appears to have paid off, and I think Panther Island is a game changer for the city.”
Since plans for Panther Island were first formalized in 2006, the federal government had contributed about $62 million, or less than one third, of the $585.8 million it must contribute to complete the project, according to data published by the Trinity River Vision Authority, a subdivision of the Tarrant Regional Water District that coordinates Panther Island activities across different agencies.
With the new plan, the corps will have met about 89% of the federal funding goal. Panther Island’s total cost is estimated at $1.16 billion, with the water district, the city of Fort Worth, the Texas Department of Transportation and a tax increment financing zone expected to cover the rest of the bills. Voters also passed a $250 million bond in 2018 designed to fund flood control and drainage facilities for Panther Island.
In her statement, Granger thanked U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, who recently had Panther Island drawn into his congressional district. In his own statement, Veasey gave credit to the Biden administration for securing funding for the project. He voted in favor of the infrastructure bill, while Granger voted against.
“I will keep working to ensure the success of this project and that other funding will come to North Texas to help our economy grow and make long overdue improvements to our nation’s infrastructure,” Veasey said in a statement.
Morris credited the bipartisan team for getting federal funding for the project to the finish line.
“I’m very proud of our congressional delegation and both parties pulling together,” he said.
Former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said she was surprised by the news but delighted that the project that spanned her entire career as Fort Worth Mayor was finally receiving federal funding. Price and Granger have sparred over failure to bring federal money to support the project.
“We would love to have had it sooner,” Price said. “But there were a lot of moving pieces on this project and timing, just like in life, is everything.”
Panther Island has long been at the center of political controversy, including disagreements between Granger and the Trump administration, which the congresswoman accused of stalling the project. In 2016, Congress passed legislation authorizing up to $526 million for Panther Island, but the funds were never officially allocated through a separate spending bill.
Granger’s son, JD, serves as executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority, which executes a master plan for the river that includes the flood control project. Some have connected Panther Island’s lack of federal funding to him being a congresswoman’s son, the Fort Worth Report previously reported. A spokesperson for the authority did not return a call requesting comment.
Granger and Veasey’s offices did not return emails requesting interviews, nor did Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker or water district board president Leah King. All four will appear at a Thursday morning press conference at the water district’s administrative building, with Veasey tuning in virtually.
Next steps for the project
The design for the bypass channel is halfway done, with federal funding expected to speed up the final design process and assist with awarding the first contract to build the channel, according to Clay Church, a spokesman for the corps’ Fort Worth district.
There is no projected end date for the project, he said, though a timeline published by the Trinity River Vision Authority targets completion of the channel in 2025.
“The funding will be utilized as soon as we receive it,” Church said. “And those funds will be forthcoming.”
Morris believes this funding will have an immediate effect on the private sector. The economic development aspect of the project depends on private investors and businesses choosing to do business on Panther Island. He thinks this investment from the federal government will give investors confidence in the project.
“I’ll bet there are dozens and dozens of private sector phone calls now to their investors and to their bankers,” Morris said. “If the private sector doesn’t get into the game fast, they’re going to be left behind.”
A 2014 economic impact study conducted by University of North Texas researchers projected Panther Island’s wide-ranging footprint, including the employment of more than 29,600 full-time workers and over $3.7 billion in annual economic activity. Developers anticipate building 10,000 housing units and 3 million square feet of commercial space.
Before the development can come to fruition, the Trinity River Vision Authority must coordinate with the corps on creating new, shared project timelines and a plan for monitoring Panther Island’s progress.
Required environmental cleanups on the 800-acre site are nearly done, but the water district needs to make an additional 18 land acquisitions to build the channel, the Fort Worth Report previously reported.
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While the $403 million will come through in the next few months, all federal funds must be matched with non-federal funds for the corps to proceed. Locally raised funds will go toward new roads, sewage and storm water lines, among other work necessary to complete the island.
The first signs of what’s to come will be on display at the Trinity River Vision Authority’s next meeting, set for 9 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 27, in the water district’s administration building.
Morris, the transportation director, said he looks forward to enjoying the rewards resulting from years of hard work on making Panther Island a reality.
“I would love to sit out on the banks of the river with a cold beer and watch a couple high school bands come by and see Kay Granger and Veasey in a car waving at everybody,” Morris said. “Wouldn’t that be cool to sit there and say look at all we created here – isn’t this something?”
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