After years of trickling investment from the federal government, the Panther Island/Central City Flood Project could receive full federal funding in less than two years. 

Almost immediately after the US Army Corps of Engineers received $403 million for the Central City Flood Project many asked: What next? The project is still short, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, although the corps hasn’t provided a final estimate. 

For supporters of the project, good news arrived this week from the corps that the project likely wouldn’t have to wait for another bill to appropriate money; the standard appropriations process has no defined timeline and could delay completion of Panther Island for many more years. Instead, the corps confirmed Thursday that it could double-dip into the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act for the rest of the money. 

“It is our intent to request additional needed funds through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” Clay Church, public affairs specialist for the Fort Worth District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said in a statement to the Fort Worth Report. 

To obligate those funds as soon as possible, Church said, the corps is considering a design-build strategy. With this strategy, one firm would be contracted to both design and construct the entirety of the bypass channels. He added that the funds received from the Infrastructure Act do not expire, and the corps has no timeline set to complete construction 

Charles Aubeny, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Texas A&M, said the design-build strategy has become more common. It removes the sometimes adversarial relationship between designer and builder but can be problematic because the designer and builder also provide their own quality control, Aubeny explained. 

“It’s going to be a very shortened timeline to get this project done because the corps wants to get this project built,” Woody Frossard, Trinity River Vision’s project manager, said. 

Under a design-build approach, one firm will receive a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars, something that concerns Lon Burnam, member of the Tarrant Regional Water District Accountability Project. 

“If you look at the life of the project, sooner rather than later might be a good thing from the standpoint of getting the project done. What we’re concerned about is the lack of transparency,” Burnam said. 

He’s not surprised project leadership are looking to move at a faster pace, and fast-tracking would ensure that the project is about politics rather than best practices, he said. Specifically, the group is concerned about proper environmental remediation once construction on the bypass channels begins.  

“We have found that we can’t trust the water district financially, and we’re increasingly concerned if we can trust them for accuracy in the cleanup,” Burnam said.

Yet, project leadership at the Trinity River Vision Authority said time is of the essence. 

“Speed is going to be critical,” project consultant Mark Mazzanti said. 

Aubeny said an escalated timeline on flood control projects isn’t necessarily problematic. The design-build strategy has been used for many years, and he said the corps will likely have a plan to check for quality as the project progresses.  

“I would imagine the Corps of Engineers knows that possible pitfall and would design quality assurance procedures, where that is taken into account,” Aubeny said.

The corps doesn’t have to meet a specific timeline to receive the funds, Church said. However, receipt of federal funds is always conditional on support from local partners like the Tarrant Regional Water District. To request more funds, the corps will have to complete the design of the unfunded parts of the project, including three flood gates, a dam and a water pump. The corps doesn’t have a proposed cost for the remainder of the project because design isn’t complete. 

 At a Jan 20 press conference, Matt Oliver, director of communications for the Panther Island/Central City Flood Control Project, said the additional funds most likely will come when the corps has completed the bypass channel and requested funds from the corps civil works appropriation process. 

Col. Jonathan Stover, who was at the conference representing the corps, said the agency would request the additional funds through its normal budgetary process. Appropriations for the corps are typically based on the immediate needs of the corps in the coming year. This is the same process that caused the Central City Flood Project to be passed over year after year. 

“Current funding is through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and we will request funding from that source to completion. We will request additional funding beyond the $403M when we identify a need,” Church said. 

Joseph Kane, a fellow focused on infrastructure for the Brookings Institution, said additional funding for the project likely isn’t assured despite the billions of dollars appropriated to the corps for inland flooding projects. 

“Just because there’s clear, demonstrated need doesn’t mean that that’s going to necessarily put the project all the way up to the top of the priority list for the Army Corps,” Kane said. 

As the project continues to compete with other flood control projects, Panther Island’s economic impact makes it more competitive for infrastructure bill funding. The bill specifically asks the corps to prioritize flood protection projects that benefit economically disadvantaged communities, Kane said. Fort Worth’s poverty rate is above the national average, so it should be prioritized under this direction.

At a Jan 27 board meeting of the Trinity River Vision Authority, project leaders discussed the opportunity for the project to be fully funded within two years. Frossard said the corps will need to quickly obligate the $403 million it already has received to show it is ready to spend the rest of the federal dollars as soon as it receives them.  

He added that in order to keep the project moving quickly, coordination between project partners will have to stay ahead of the corps. Fossard said project management teams will start meeting weekly to stay on top of the project as it progresses.

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Rachel Behrndt

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for fortworthreport.org. She can be reached at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org

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