BY LUKE RANKER, Star-Telegram
With no fanfare, the White Settlement Road bridge near downtown opened to traffic Friday, more than six years after Fort Worth dignitaries gathered for an explosive ceremony to kick start construction of Panther Island.
Construction crews dragged barricades off the roadway just before 4 p.m., but little was said about the bridge’s opening. The seemingly perpetually delayed bridge had become a bane for businesses in the area that were cut off from downtown.
“The entire area is excited for that bridge to be opened up,” said Steve Metcalf, president of the White Settlement Road Development Task Force. “We’re fired up.”
Of the three bridges under construction for the $1.17 billion Panther Island project, White Settlement is the only one without an obvious detour, forcing downtown motorists who want to reach Metcalf’s Dealer Alternative, 2701 White Settlement Rd., or nearby Angelo’s BBQ to take a long route down West Seventh Street.
The lack of thru traffic put a damper on business along White Settlement Road. Metclaf said on average over the last few years Dealer Alternative’s business had been down about 15%. With COVID-19 restrictions, business was down nearly 30% last year, though he said he wanted to remain positive about the bridge opening.
“I don’t want to worry about spilled milk,” he said.
At Angelo’s BBQ, 2533 White Settlement Rd., sales have been down 20% to 25% since the road closed, owner Jason George said. He’s hoping things will pick up soon, especially if drivers who want to avoid congested West Seventh start using White Settlement. That congestion may pick up as the city moves forward with a improvements to West Seventh that will likely cause lane closures.
“Compared to how our lunches have been over the past few years, today was very, very good,” George said.
Chopped beef sandwiches are just $3 this week to celebrate the opening, which he said was a surprise. Some workers had told him the bridge could open last Thursday, but at one point a large electric sign advertised April 7.
The spans are needed to connect Panther Island to the rest of Fort Worth and must be finished before the Army Corps of Engineers can begin digging a 1.5-mile bypass channel between the two forks of the Trinity River. The channel portion of the project has lacked federal funding for several years.
When Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger and others gathered to celebrate the official start of the project in November 2015 with a ceremonial explosion, the bridges were expected to open between 2017 and 2018, according to Star-Telegram archives. Design issues held up construction and their opening was pushed to 2019. Then project officials said the White Settlement bridge would be finished by late summer 2020, but the date was pushed back again to the end of last year. COVID-19 and construction delays pushed the date into 2021 with speculation during Trinity River Vision Authority board meetings that White Settlement would open in February or March. TxDOT put the opening date in “early 2021.”
Bridges for North Main and Henderson should open in the coming months. The bridges cost about $90 million, but damages may be assessed related to delays of White Settlement, a TxDOT spokesperson said.
Some lanes on the bridge may close to traffic as crews from contractor Sterling Texas wrap up work, according to a media advisory TxDOT posted Friday afternoon. Pedestrians may cross on the south side of the bridge, but the north sidewalk is still closed.
A spokesperson for the Trinity River Vision Authority said the city and TxDOT did not formally announce the opening. Metcalf said he received calls from the city a few days before it opened.
About 30 minutes after the barricades were removed, Metcalf said he started to see cars trickling over the bridge.
“I imagine some of those people driving over the bridge don’t know it’s been closed for nearly seven years,” Metcalf said.