The Star-Telegram: Funding the Trinity River Vision through good times and bad

Oct 24, 2011

By Mitchell Schurman

The federal government may be in a world of hurt, but not the Trinity River Vision.

That was the message last week, when Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, called a news conference to announce that $15 million in federal money had been secured for the river project.

Given that the TRV is estimated to cost $910 million and take at least 10 more years to complete, it hardly seems newsworthy that officials locked up 1.6 percent of the budget. Except that these days, every federal dollar is precious, and Granger's TRV coalition served notice that it'll scratch and claw to keep the Fort Worth project on track.

Maybe its best argument is that local government is paying more of the early costs rather than relying exclusively on Uncle Sam. Through August, local sources had contributed $83 million toward the project, while the federal allocation was almost $44 million, not including the latest $15 million pledge.

Despite some Republicans calling for an end to earmarks, Granger believes that this cost sharing will keep the TRV on course.

"The projects that can't come up with their local funds are the ones that are really going to slow down," Granger said. "That's one reason ours goes to the top of the list."

Fortunately, this ambitious idea took root in 2001. Back then, most people still believed that government could do great things, such as moving a river and reviving a distressed area about the size of the central business district.

The heavy lifting is still ahead, but officials say the project is on schedule and under budget. It has also produced about 10 percent more incremental tax revenue than expected through fiscal 2011, according to TRV reports.

Some savings have come from lower construction costs and value engineering, say board members on the project. My favorite addition is a traffic roundabout that saves $2 million on a new bridge and should make for a better urban setting.

But such progress gets overshadowed by the infighting in Washington, where earmarks -- money OK'd by Congress for specific projects advocated by members -- have been attacked as wasteful spending. That broad brush discredits every infrastructure project in the country, including the good ones. And the TRV is counting on the feds to cover more than half its budget, or nearly $488 million, so Granger has to keep the money flowing.

The Army Corps of Engineers, penciled in to provide the big bucks, isn't expected to start digging the $94 million bypass channel for three years, so a lot could change by then. Officials are already adjusting schedules in the event that Congress reverses course and plows new money into infrastructure jobs; if that happens, several pieces of the TRV will be shovel-ready and eager to compete for funding.

But at the moment and probably until the TRV is finished, there will be fears that federal support will dry up. Granger said she's always asked whether local, state and national leaders are still behind it.

"Our actions speak as loud as our words," Granger said Thursday, proud that local officials had found a way to land more money.

Originally, the Transportation Department was supposed to provide the last piece of funding for two bridges on Henderson and North Main streets. But the transportation bill is bogged down over a House proposal to cut spending by 30 percent, so Granger went to the Regional Transportation Council of the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

That local agency had enough federal money to close the gap. Bridge construction starts next year, and Granger was quick to say that 800 jobs will be created.

If the federal money stopped completely, the TRV would be in serious trouble. The local players -- the Tarrant Regional Water District, Tarrant County and Fort Worth -- have already pledged a combined $102 million.

But Granger said the more likely result is that big projects will simply compete for fewer dollars. The TRV can live with that because it's been garnering awards for years as a model for economic development and flood control.

Just last summer, the TRV partners received a good-neighbor award from the corps, the only civilian project to get such a nod, officials said. While the corps is prohibited from lobbying Congress, its backing of the TRV has been unambiguous so far.

In a more austere time, when the corps can't do as much, one priority should be to finish projects that are under way. The TRV has already bought property, moved businesses, demolished old buildings and completed some environmental cleanup. Building bridges adds to the list.

Still, local officials have made contingency plans. If necessary, they say they'll slow the project to match the pace of federal funding. It's also possible to get advance money from the feds for crucial pieces that keep the project on schedule.

Under the worst-case scenario, local governments could increase their contribution, Granger said. And some cities have sold bonds to complete vital projects. She wouldn't suggest how the local share might change, saying any shift wouldn't be necessary until 2014 or beyond.

"It'll be a year-to-year thing" with federal funding, said Vic Henderson, president of the water district. "We may have to slow it down some time, but we'll finish this project."

He can be confident, in large part because the water district is providing an interest-free loan of up to $226 million. That will smooth out the funding gaps, and some of the money has already been deployed.

But TRV officials monitor the spending daily, and because the project is so large, there are ample ways to save. To get rid of 300,000 cubic feet of dirt in Gateway Park, they offered to give it away to construction companies that needed the fill. That saved $2 million in a budgeted expense.

Officials also discovered that the bypass channel could be about 8 feet shallower than initially projected, which will cut extraction costs by $10 million to $15 million.

Sometimes, the savings benefit the Army Corps' side of the ledger; other times, they lower the costs for local players. Either way, the TRV wins and in the process shows how a ground-breaking project should work.

That's not only good for taxpayers and government. It may be the only way to keep the federal money coming.