• September 18, 2019

TEXAS VIEW: We are so done with foot-dragging games on Panther Island - Odessa American: Texas Opinion

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TEXAS VIEW: We are so done with foot-dragging games on Panther Island

THE POINT: Mayor Betsy Price, water district leaders need to get closely involved to keep the river authority on track.

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Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2019 2:30 am

All summer, flaws in the Panther Island project have been exposed — muddled missions, a confusing structure and flawed communications.

But last week’s conflict over a relatively benign issue, work on utility lines, laid bare the deep divide that threatens the project.

The actual dispute is arcane. City officials are reluctant to extend the life of a taxing mechanism. The Tarrant Regional Water District, which is primarily responsible for the flood-control project, wants the tax extension as a guarantee when it sells bonds that voters have already authorized.

But the real problem is that no one has any answers about why the project can’t win federal funding or what to do about it.

So, there they were, some of the most important leaders in the city, county and region, arguing over less than 1% of the project’s overall $1.17 billion price tag and whether a taxing district most residents aren’t even aware of should last until 2044 or a few years later.

We’re 18 years into study and work on this problem, and taxpayers are no safer from a catastrophic flood. But hey, we can marvel at half-built bridges over dry land.

The utility work involves moving and updating power, gas and water lines so the Army Corps of Engineers can begin planning the bypass channel that will divert the Trinity River. It’s a potential tripping point; work on the channel largely can’t begin until the utilities’ locations are clear, and upgrades are needed for future dense development on the island that will be created.

Taken separately, each side has valid points. But the whole purpose of the Trinity River Vision Authority is to coordinate among various governments.

City leaders assure that the utility work will get done. And when we followed up with two leading board members, they finally drove to the real dispute: City Manager David Cooke wants the board to start considering what local governments will do if federal funding is delayed much longer or never arrives at all.

“If that federal money doesn’t come, what’s plan B?” he said.

Jim Oliver, the water district’s general manager, insisted that these kinds of multiyear projects have ups and downs. And he noted that the board had already agreed to the tax extension.

Without federal money, he said, “there is no plan B.”

One of them will be proved right. And the reality is, none of this would be necessary if any federal funding could be pried loose to keep the project moving.

Texas sends more Republicans to Congress than any other state, but none of them seem willing or able to exercise enough clout with the Trump administration to get this project moving.

The utility squabble masked otherwise noteworthy progress on several of the structural issues raised by a consultant’s review conducted this spring.

The board voted to address some of the major flaws identified by a consultant’s review conducted this spring. Among them is moving the entertainment and development functions around Panther Island to the water district and the city so the river authority can become “solely a flood control and public safety organization,” as board president G.K. Maenius put it.

That could be key to the funding question. The federal government is interested primarily in flood control, and the “optics issue” of the board’s involvement in planning festivals and condo construction may have given reluctant bureaucrats a reason to overlook the project.

Squabbling over small-bore issues is a gift to any federal official looking for a reason to delay funding, or simply favor other projects. If the locals can’t get it together, why should anyone in Washington stick his or her neck out?

Mayor Betsy Price has gone to great lengths to improve the project’s profile and try to secure the funding. After a White House visit in July, she sounded hopeful that it would soon come, and her spokeswoman said last week that the mayor’s confidence had not changed.

Price, water district leaders such as board president Jack Stevens and County Judge Glen Whitley need to get closely involved to keep the river authority on track, if that’s what it takes.

Call it a “Catch-22,” as Cooke did. Or a game of chicken.

We call it a distracting blame game. Taxpayers deserve better.

Odessa, TX

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