Army Corps officials stumped on how to finish Panther Island

Engineer explains Panther Island flood prevention project

Tarrant Regional Water District engineer, Woody Frossard explains how the Panther Island flood prevention project works.
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Tarrant Regional Water District engineer, Woody Frossard explains how the Panther Island flood prevention project works.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking into whether Fort Worth’s Panther Island project needs additional authorization from Congress to once again receive money that stopped flowing under President Donald Trump’s administration, officials told lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

They’re also assessing other options to provide the federal funding as proponents of the project face pressure to deliver at least $26 million in 2020 for the project to stay on track.

“If the administration ... gives us the green light we’re absolutely committed to ruthlessly continuing to being able to complete all these projects,” Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the chief of engineers and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told lawmakers Wednesday in a hearing of the House Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee.

Citing frustration over a lack of funding for a number of projects the Corps has been assigned, Semonite added: “On this one here, we don’t have the funding.”

Officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tell lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the White House won't give them the "green light" to complete Fort Worth's Panther Island project, March 27, 2019.

The $1.17 billion Panther Island project calls for the Army Corps to cut a bypass channel in the Trinity River north of downtown Fort Worth, forming a roughly 800-acre island. The channel is part of a flood control effort aimed at protecting about 2,400 acres while allowing some of the city’s levees to come down.

The project received roughly $60 million under previous administrations. Congress approved $526 million for it in 2016. That money is expected to be doled out over several years.

The Trump administration last year declared Panther Island not “policy compliant for budgeting because of the lack of an economic analysis.” It did not receive money in the 2018 or 2019 fiscal years.

“I’m not sure that the administration doesn’t support the project, they’re trying to elevate projects based on their priorities,” which include “economic return to the nation,” Army Corps Assistant Secretary R.D. James told lawmakers.

Congress approved Panther Island for federal funding without the normal cost-benefit analysis required for Army Corps Civil Works projects. Project officials have said this study was skipped because the Corps can’t measure future economic development that would be driven by the creation of the downtown island.

James said he’s been working with Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, to figure out whether there are “other authorizations” needed for the project to move up among White House priorities.

“At this point, I don’t know of any,” he said. “It’s a good project, there have been misunderstandings.”

Local taxpayers have spent about $324 million on the project.

Yet the White House considers Panther Island at the bottom of a list projects totaling $60 billion to $80 billion vying for Army Corps funding. For the 2019 fiscal year, Congress gave the Army Corps about $7.3 billion to apply to that list.

Army Corps officials said Wednesday that they’re in close contact with Granger about Panther Island, and looking for other ways to fund the Army Corps’ portion of the work.

“One of my biggest frustrations in the last two and a half years is when Congress has given us money to start something, given us the authority to do it, and then we don’t finish a project out there,” Semonite said.

A return of earmarks might be one of the potential routes to funding the project. Democrats who took control of the House in November have voiced support for bringing back the process, which allows lawmakers to assign money to specific projects.

But Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-New York, told colleagues earlier this month that it won’t happen in the 2020 fiscal year, because they haven’t been able to reach an agreement on the issue with Republicans.

Granger, the highest-ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, did not attend the hearing on Army Corps budget because of a family emergency, her office told the Star-Telegram.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, the highest-ranking Republican on the Energy and Water subcommittee, posed questions about the Corps’ plans for the project on Granger’s behalf.

Simpson used his own speaking time to rail against the White House’s involvement in deciding which projects the Army Corps funds, accusing the administration of picking favorites based on which communities it thinks can raise the money to do the projects themselves.

“They’re doing [Office of Management and Budget] earmarks, is essentially what they’re doing,” Simpson said.

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.
Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or
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