Fort Worth’s $1B Panther Island project quietly cut from 2018 federal budget

Construction of bridges along north Main Street that will go over rechanneled water of the Trinity River as part of the Trinity River Vision progresses, Friday, July 13, 2018.
Construction of bridges along north Main Street that will go over rechanneled water of the Trinity River as part of the Trinity River Vision progresses, Friday, July 13, 2018. rmallison@star-telegram.com

More from the series

Follow all of the Star-Telegram’s Panther Island coverage

Read more about Fort Worth’s $1.16 billion flood control and economic development project that has stopped receiving federal funds.

Expand All

Fort Worth’s behind-schedule $1.16 billion plan to re-route the Trinity River is no longer considered a top contender for federal funding — and the Army Corps of Engineers has quietly excluded the project from its budget.

The omission is particularly glaring for Fort Worth Rep. Kay Granger, a senior member of Congress’s powerful spending committee whose son, J.D. Granger, serves as the project’s executive director.

Granger declined to be interviewed by the Star-Telegram about the project on Capitol Hill last week. Her office also declined to provide comment for the story. She is vying for her party’s top spot on the House appropriations committee next year.

Congress approved the so-called Panther Island project for up to $526 million in federal funding in 2016, but the money must be doled out over time in separate spending bills. The Army Corps and White House budget office, run by South Carolina conservative Mick Mulvaney, then have some leverage in deciding which projects are chosen to actually receive money.

“The administration does not consider the [Panther Island] project to be policy compliant for budgeting because of the lack of an economic analysis,” said Corps spokesman Eugene Pawlik. “The project did not receive fiscal 2018 Civil Works funding and is not in the president’s fiscal 2019 Civil Works budget.”

The Army Corps “develops the work plans in accordance with the congressional guidance and generally prioritizes projects based on their expected economic, life-saving and environmental benefits to the nation,” Pawlik said. “Before the work plans are finalized and presented to Congress, they undergo policy review within the administration.”

So far the Army Corps has contributed $61.9 million to the project, also called the Trinity River Vision. It aims to rebuild the aging 1950s West Fork levees downtown and, in the process straighten the river channel and move it about 10 blocks north.

The final product will also create a San Antonio-style riverwalk and 800-acre scenic “island” north of downtown, goals that have long angered conservatives both locally and nationally.

The White House budget office directed questions about the project to the Corps. The Corps has not yet laid out which projects it will fund in the 2019 fiscal year, which began Monday.

“Because there’s a finite amount [of resources] and because there’s been so much flood and storm damage recently, it changes who is prioritized,” said a source familiar with the matter, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the project.

The Army Corps funds projects focused on flood and storm damage reduction, commercial navigation and aquatic ecosystem restoration. This year it received an extra $5 billion from Congress for damage caused by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. Some of that money was dedicated to a different Trinity River project in Dallas.

Last week Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price flew to Washington to attend an economic summit at the White House, and discussed the Panther Island project with Trump’s government relations officials.

“We mentioned that it was a critical project for us and we would love to have the funding secured for it,” Price told the Star-Telegram after the summit.

The project’s planners, who did not publicize the omission when it was announced in July, say they’ve used local funds to keep the project on pace with their previously set schedule. They say the flood control project remains a public safety concern for Fort Worth, and they don’t plan to scale back its scope.

“We’ve been able to continue moving forward with the current schedule,” said TRV spokesman Matt Oliver, who pointed to a $250 million bond approved by voters earlier this year by voters in the Fort Worth-based Tarrant Regional Water District.

“We have the local money in hand… we have the schedule based on the situation currently, so if you have times where a particular part of that schedule might speed up or a particular part of that schedule might slow down, that’s something we’ve never shied away from,” said Oliver.

Star-Telegram political columnist Bud Kennedy contributed to this report.
Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She can be reached at adrusch@mcclatchydc.com; @andreadrusch