Late this weekend, Fort Worth officials plan to open the new North Main Street bridge that leads to the eventual Panther Island — marking another step forward in a project that has been more than a decade in the making and is still years from completion.
But local officials say the many moving pieces of the project are beginning to align. With a new presidential administration, an impending federal infrastructure bill and the return of appropriations earmarks, officials say that federal funding could soon flow into the project and kick off the next big phase of construction.
The upcoming North Main Street bridge opening — scheduled for Sunday afternoon or Monday morning — will be the second of three. It comes after the White Settlement Road bridge opened in April and before the anticipated Henderson Street bridge opens later this summer.
Tarrant County administrator G.K. Maenius pointed to the bridges as evidence that “we’re finally seeing some results” — and he said he’s pleased with the aesthetics of those results, too.
“I don’t know if anyone realized just how beautiful those bridges are going to be,” he said. “I’m not a bridge guy, but even to me, they look pretty darn good.”
The North Main Street bridge opening is a sign of progress in a project that has frustrated some Fort Worth residents with its delays. Visioning for Panther Island began more than 15 years ago, with city and water district officials outlining a plan for a bustling urban island that was then called Trinity Uptown.
The creation of an island necessitates the digging of a new channel north of downtown Fort Worth, which would connect the Clear and West forks of the Trinity River and then connect the ends of a U-shaped bend in the Trinity River. The new channel would effectively create two islands, together called Panther Island.
And for access over the eventual channel, the Texas Department of Construction in 2014 began building the three bridges, which currently span dry land. At the time, officials said the bridges would be completed by 2018.
But even once the final bridge opens to traffic later this year, the Panther Island project is far from complete. Most notably — and noticeably — digging has not begun on the river channel that would run under the new bridges.
While the project has seen some federal money, officials have waited years for the federal funds to dig the channel. But some, including Maenius and the Tarrant Regional Water District’s incoming general manager Dan Buhman, say they’re hopeful the funding might actually pull through soon.
“I have all the confidence in the world that we’ll be able to get federal funds,” Buhman said.
Federal funding hurdles
Officially, the $1.17 billion project is broken into two pieces: the flood control portion, which is known as the Central City project and primarily involves digging the 1.5-mile channel, and the economic development portion, which is known as the Panther Island project and primarily involves the development of the industrial land in the area.
The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, with the Tarrant Regional Water District as a local partner, oversees the flood control portion of the project, while the city of Fort Worth heads up the economic development piece.
An appointed board, the Trinity River Vision Authority, brings together representatives from the city, county and water district to help coordinate the various aspects of the project.
But the coordinated vision of a hopping mixed-use island neighborhood is still far from reality. With the bridges nearly complete, the next step of the project is to dig the channel.
Officials have long said that it was cheaper and easier to build the bridges over dry land, and that the federal government would pay for the channel construction because it’s a flood control project.
And while U.S. Congress in 2016 authorized the funds — which could be up to about half of the total $1.17 billion project cost — it has not yet appropriated the money and actually sent it to Fort Worth.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger (R-Fort Worth), who has led the push for federal funding, initially planned to funnel funds to the project through earmarks in congressional appropriations bills, the Star-Telegram previously reported.
Then, appropriations earmarks were banned, which meant that projects had to be vetted and OK’d by the White House. The Trump administration never gave the green light to the Panther Island/Central City project, pointing to the project’s lack of a comprehensive cost-benefit study and labeling it “not policy compliant.”
‘This might be one of the best opportunities we have’
But now, a couple of key changes are giving hope to Panther Island/Central City officials.
Maenius, the Tarrant County administrator, said it comes down to three primary shifts: the new Biden administration (which he hopes will look more favorably on the Fort Worth project), the resurrection of appropriations earmarks and the bipartisan push for a large federal infrastructure bill.
The project has “never really had all three of those elements at one time, and now we’re having that,” Maenius said. “And I believe — and it’s my personal belief, but I’ve been around for a while — is that this might be one of the best opportunities we have to actually begin receiving money from government funding, from the feds.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is that the project still does not have a comprehensive cost-benefit study. The Star-Telegram previously reported that this type of study is typically done before U.S. Congress authorizes funding for a project — which is a step that the Panther Island/Central City project has already moved past, with the aid of a 2014 University of North Texas study.
Maenius said he believes that the project’s lack of a comprehensive cost-benefit study was “nothing more than a blocker that the Trump administration would throw up so that we would not secure federal dollars.”
And although the project was not included in the Army Corps of Engineers’ 2021 Work Plan, Maenius hopes to see federal funding start making its way to Fort Worth in the next federal budget, in 2022.
Mark Mazzanti, a consultant on the flood control portion of the project and a 35-year veteran of the Army Corps of Engineers, said the federal government’s finite funding allocation means difficult decisions about which projects to fund. But he also said that the Panther Island/Central City project has “a number of strengths,” including support from locals, from Congress and from the Corps itself.
“Some of the factors that go into where to put limited funds … [lead] us to, I think, the perception that this project is considered favorably in ultimately receiving federal funding for completing the construction project,” Mazzanti said.
Federal funding would mean that workers could begin on the new channel — first with final planning and then actual digging and construction.
Even after federal funding comes through, it would likely be another eight to 10 years until the channel was actually completed, according to Buhman, the soon-to-be general manager of the water district.
That means that the channel would be finished — and Panther Island would actually become a full island — by 2030 at the earliest.
In the meantime, Buhman said, officials are focused on getting the land as ready as it can be for the channel. The water district is working on environmental cleanup of the Panther Island properties, he said, while the city moves and sets up utilities.
“We are shovel-ready for that channel and we’re still doing that prep work but I would say it is well on its way,” Buhman said. “And we are at the place that we are ready for that federal investment and for that construction.”