Follow the Money - Local Politicians Campaign Contributors
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Dallas lawmaker stalls funding for Fort Worth's river project - A Trinity tug of war
Much of the area to the northwest of downtown Fort Worth would be redeveloped as part of the Trinity River Vision. The $435-million project would create an urban waterfront on the Trinity, opening it to recreation, green spaces, and residential and commercial development.
WASHINGTON -- For the first time in seven years, Congress has approved a massive $23.2 billion water projects bill that includes years of backed-up requests for flood control projects and improvements to rivers and harbors by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The bill includes funds for an $80 million Johnson Creek restoration project in Arlington, but there is something missing from Tarrant County's wish list: funding for a key aspect of Fort Worth's Trinity River Vision project. That's the city's $435 million showcase effort to redesign itself by creating an urban waterfront on the Trinity River, opening it to recreation, green spaces and residential and commercial development.
The tangled tale involves some political miscalculations, confusion over the changing nature of the project and the always baffling congressional funding process.
Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, the central figure in the case, has worked tirelessly to promote the project in recent years. But this year she ran into a formidable obstacle: Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, the new chairwoman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee.
The roadblock put up by Johnson is unlikely to stall Fort Worth's project for long. But it's a reality check and a reminder that nothing is certain in Congress and that local opposition to a local project can make things more difficult. Tarrant County Democrats oppose the project, and they are taking their complaints to new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Granger and others pushing for Trinity River Vision are confident that they will prevail and get full funding for Fort Worth's signature project.
Beginning in 2000, Granger, a former Fort Worth mayor, used her position on the House Appropriations Committee to direct funding, initially in small amounts, for environmental studies on the Trinity River project. Then, in 2004, after a water resources bill collapsed, she bypassed regular channels and obtained congressional authorization of $220 million for the Central City project, which is the Corps of Engineers' name for the flood control work in Fort Worth.
Granger's 2004 move was something of a coup because she succeeded in getting the Central City project "authorized" on an appropriation bill.
Congressional committees are split into authorizing panels, which set policy and overall funding levels, and the appropriations committee, which amounts to check-writers who direct the specific annual amounts that agencies can spend.
Members zealously guard their turf, as Granger discovered this year.
Johnson, who became chairman in January after the Democrats won control of Congress, blocked Granger's request for an authorization for the full cost of the Central City project, which incorporated $27.3 million for a neighboring project called the Riverside Oxbow. Under the plan, flood controls involving costly easements in west Fort Worth could be replaced by diverting water to the 600-acre Riverside Oxbow, which includes a dry bend of the Trinity in east Fort Worth.
But Johnson did not consider the Fort Worth Central City project to be one that was already in the works for Corps funding. Rather, she declared it would be considered a new project.
"We had taken a vote on our committee and unanimously said we would not consider any new projects," Johnson said in an interview. "We'll consider it when we start a new bill."
Johnson said that work will begin shortly on a new bill, assuming that the current water projects bill becomes law. Congress appears to have the votes to override a threatened veto from President Bush, who believes the bill is too costly.
Granger said she talked to Johnson about the Central City project in March, although the Dallas Democrat said, "I wasn't even aware of it until the day we were doing a mark-up," or vote, on the water projects bill.
Help from Hutchison
Stymied on the House side, Granger turned to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who inserted $247 million for the project in the Senate version of the bill -- the amount approved in 2004 plus the $27.3 million for the Riverside Oxbow.
When the bill went to a conference committee this summer to work out the differences between the House and Senate bills, Johnson again opposed the Trinity project and the funding was removed in the final conference even though the overall bill grew from $14 billion in the Senate and $15 billion in the House into a $23 billion projects bill.
"That was a problem on the House side," Hutchison said in an interview. "We definitely tried and Kay [Granger] tried very, very hard to get it in." Neither Hutchison nor Granger was on the conference committee.
Johnson, for her part, said, "I didn't want to add any new projects" and said she had the support of the leaders of her panel in the negotiations.
Johnson was successful in securing funds for her own Trinity River project in the bill: $298 million in authorization for flood control, wetlands and bridge modifications for Dallas' Trinity River Corridor. The Dallas project is separate from Fort Worth's but one House aide said that Johnson was clear "that there would be one Trinity River project" in the bill.
Johnson also did not block the $80 million Johnson Creek project in Arlington.
By Aug. 1, when the House passed the conference report bill on water projects, Granger was already looking ahead to next year's Water Resources Development Act. The conference report did not include the Central City funding and could not be amended on the floor.
In August, Granger brought Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to tour the project area.
"I have a very strong commitment to put it in whatever measure I can," Mica said Wednesday in the Capitol. "I guess there was some conflict with Ms. Johnson." Of the project, he said, "It makes a lot of sense, in my opinion. Hopefully, we can get a meeting of the minds and get it in the next measure."
Granger was upbeat in a recent interview. "It will be in the second WRDA bill," she said of the Fort Worth project.
"I don't consider it a setback," she said. "The next WRDA bill won't be so huge," making it more likely the project could stay in.
As for Johnson, Granger said, "She had a briefing -- absolutely." And the Central City project, said Granger, "is not a new start."
Although Granger stressed that the entire $435 million Trinity River Vision project, which splits costs 50-50 between federal and local sources, will have to be authorized "at some point," she said the Corps will continue to get funding for it through the appropriations process.
"I'm not worried about it," said Granger, noting the project is ahead of schedule. "We're in fine shape. There's no concern."
In the appropriations bills for fiscal year 2008, House-passed bills include $8 million for construction, $1 million for bridge construction and $550,000 for economic development for Central City Fort Worth. The levels will still have to be negotiated with the Senate.
The Tarrant County project that did receive funding in the recent water bill is the new Johnson Creek restoration project that has been more than a decade in the works. The project, expected to start soon, will help stabilize creek banks, add trails and other recreational amenities, and a new pedestrian bridge between the new Cowboys stadium and the future Glorypark development. Local officials have said the total cost of the project is expected to be $50 million. But the water bill said the overall cost is $80 million, with as much as $52 million coming from the federal government.
Read more in the Fort Worth Star Telegram
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