Fort Worth officials and Tarrant Regional Water District personnel have more nerve than a bum tooth, or else they don’t realize the gall it takes to seek a $250 million bond referendum to pay for “flood control.” The election is May 5, and approval means the bond money is expected to go to the Trinity River Vision plan, now referred to as Panther Island. This could raise the total cost of that project to more than $1 billion.
We’ve never considered Panther Island a bad idea in principle. A downtown pond and riverwalk flanked by shops and green spaces sound wonderful. But if ever there was a way to sour residents on the idea, the leaders of this project have stumbled upon it time and again.
Shall we recap?
The plan to re-route the Trinity River near downtown and create a small lake and retail/residential mecca was discussed in earnest in the early 2000s. In 2004, the City Council approved a master plan with an expected cost of $360 million. Critics scoffed and predicted the costs would skyrocket well beyond that lowball amount.
The project wasn’t put up for a vote, even though it could easily become one of the city’s most expensive publicly funded projects in recent memory. City, county, and federal funds will be used.
Downplaying the economic development angle and touting flood control – even though the area in question hadn’t seen any real flooding in many decades – could make it easier for project leaders to nab public money. Claiming flood control would prompt a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study. Or would it? Project enthusiasts have more aces up their sleeve than a dime-store magician.
The flood control part could have been done for a pittance, maybe $10 million, according to federal estimates. But the economy was riding high back then, and it seemed like there was plenty of pork for the taking. Another $225 million or so would make it possible to re-engineer the river, improve levees, and build bridges. The Corps was approving plenty of projects at the time. And many residents around here were OK with taking a big suck on the public teat, especially if most of the milk was coming from the feds.
Former Fort Worth Mayor Kay Granger, who was elected to the U.S. House in 1997, led the efforts in Washington, D.C. Her son, JD Granger, is paid about $200,000 a year to head up the local Trinity River Vision Authority that oversees everything. Nepotism appears to be as lightly regarded as ethics among this crowd. Mother and son co-owned properties near the river project that weren’t sold until 2010 (“Deep Waters,” Aug. 14, 2013).
Eminent domain was used on property owners who were pushed out to make way for an economic development project that would benefit other, more deserving humans with deeper connections. It’s all about networking, people!
Water District officials have been secretive about many particulars along the way, and reporters have struggled to obtain information even after submitting public information requests. Mary Kelleher, elected to the Water District board in 2013, said she received a tongue-lashing from Water District director Jim Oliver after she began seeking information.
Kay Granger says on her website that the project will provide “badly needed flood protection along the Trinity River.”
Kelleher, who lost her bid for re-election to the board in 2017, continues to monitor the project, calling bullshit whenever she spies it. Which is often. She believes Panther Island would have been spayed and neutered early on if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had done a cost-benefit analysis.
“Water projects are supposed to go through the Corps of Engineers to make sure it’s worth using all that money for the project,” she said.
In 2004, Fort Worth residents voted for a $232 million proposition for street and sewer improvements that were actually intended for Panther Island, she said.
“The Fort Worth people were duped into thinking they were getting sewer improvements when it was actually for the design of the Trinity River Vision,” she said. “If it had been worded that way, people might not have been so inclined to vote for it.”
In 2008, voters approved a $150 million proposition for street improvements that was intended for the bridges being built as part of the project – bridges that still remain unfinished 10 years later.
She suspects similar semantic trickery is being used currently. Early ballots that have been mailed out say the upcoming $250 million in bonds will pay for flood control and drainage facilities. No other specifics are provided. Kelleher believes the scant information “misrepresents the true spirit of what they are really asking for” – more money for Panther Island.
“Why don’t they just be transparent and say it’s for economic development, so that we can have a round waterway?” she said. “People need to know the truth, what they’re really voting for.”
Kay Granger and her buddies assure everyone that Panther Island will bring jobs, boost the local tax base, decrease flooding, add 800 acres to downtown, and create a stimulating, thriving urban waterfront community. Granger has worked diligently to secure many, many millions of dollars in federal funding to offset our local costs. But accomplishing such a major feat through secrecy and deceit makes the whole affair seem as dark and murky as the Trinity River water in question.