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Banking on the River:
Economy Not Slowing Fort Worth Development
By SHELLEY KOFLER / KERA News
In a year when U.S. House Republicans have taken a pledge against earmarks, Senator John Cornyn is stepping forward to request $10 million in federal money for Fort Worth's Trinity Vision plan.
Congresswoman Kay Granger of Fort Worth has been the point person in Congress wrangling federal money for Trinity Vision - federal money that is crucial because it pays for more than half of the huge $909 million project. Although Granger has taken the no-earmark pledge, it appears Trinity Vision still has a shot at new federal money next year because of a request from Senator John Cornyn.
There are vocal opponents stirring the pot, however, who want public money out of the project. However, the Trinity Vision planners seem to have back-up plans in the event a source of money falls short, and they've found some creative ways to cut costs. Continuing KERA's series of special reports Banking on the River - An Update, Shelley Kofler takes a look at how Fort Worth plans to keep this project going despite the tough economy.
FORT WORTH - East of downtown, an earth mover lumbers down a steep slope into an earthen pit. It digs deeper into the hole, dumping shovels of dirt into a waiting truck.
Randall Howard won the contract to excavate this 100-acre site on the Trinity River near Gateway Park.
"Our project is to excavate out dirt where a large retention pond or lake will be built," Howard said.
Trinity Vision managers plan to reroute the river near downtown, creating two islands with valuable waterfront property for development. They said the project will protect the inner city from flooding by pushing excess water downstream, filling these retention ponds instead of neighborhoods.
Project employees could have dug the flood storage ponds themselves, but instead they're saving millions by giving Howard the dirt. He digs it, transports it and sells it to other contractors.
"The biggest part of the cost is the trucking - the moving the dirt," he said. "If they have to excavate and move off this whole site it could cost $8 to $10 million."
Saving money any time is good. Saving it in this economy is great.
The Trinity Vision project is funded entirely with public money, and most government bodies are struggling. The City of Fort Worth and Tarrant County together provide just four percent of the funding - and both face tight budgets. But they say they plan to meet their commitment to the project next year.
The federal government pays for more than half the project, and there's no guarantee Congress will grant any part of Senator Cornyn's request. But even if Washington doesn't give Trinity Vision a dime next year, executive director J.D. Granger said the project will be fine. Granger said the project has $40 million in unspent federal money to keep it on schedule.
"We can still move on for about the next two years, roughly, without a single change in our plans," he said.
Then there's the largest and most heavily scrutinized local funding source, the Tarrant Regional Water District. The district covers a third of Trinity Vision's costs through royalties from oil and gas wells on district land, and through a $230 million loan. Trinity Vision plans to repay the district loan with an increase in property tax money that will come as the project makes land around it more valuable.
The water district said it, too, is on target to make its contribution next year.
Meanwhile, two members of a local "tea party" group are running in the May 8 election for the water board, leading a campaign to remove vital water district money from the project.
At Republican clubs throughout Tarrant County, business owner and candidate Adrian Murray tells listeners Trinity Vision has caused the water district to drift from its main missions.
"I believe the water board's primary focus is water delivery and flood control," Murray said. "We've seen in recent years it's all about the Trinity River Vision and economic development. In terms of the uptown project, I believe it should be a matter of private enterprise."
Some in the audience nod their heads in agreement as the other candidate, meteorologist John Basham, claims the project actually creates flooding where none exists.
"They are going to cause a flooding issue by increasing the speed of the river, which is what you do by taking out the oxbow and by channeling it," Basham said. "So this economic development is actually causing the flooding."
"Despite what the critics say, the Army Corps of Engineers - who are flood control experts throughout the United States - has certified this as a flood control project," said Tarrant Regional Water District General Manager Jim Oliver.
Oliver said the Corps of Engineers told Fort Worth to either raise its levees 10 feet, or find another way to improve flood protection. He said project planners chose a path that goes beyond sterile walls that would have made the river harder to reach.
"The public doesn't just want to see an ugly flood control project," Oliver said. "They want to see something that integrates economic development and recreation and things like that."
Oliver believes opposition to the project is small, and little will change with the water board's May election.
Right now, it's full speed ahead. The dirt's flying, utility relocation is beginning and designs for the bypass channel continue. The construction of three new bridges is scheduled for next year.
KERA's 'Living With The Trinity'
Email Shelley Kofler
(This story originally aired on KERA-FM on April 15, 2010.)