Metropolis: Wednesday, June 20, 2002
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Rolling into the Sunset

RadioShack is looking for buyers to take the train.

By JEFF PRINCE

Rolling into the Sunset

RadioShack is looking for buyers to take the train.

BY JEFF PRINCE

Imagine that Fort Worth had something no other United States city could claim. Something so rare that to replace it might cost $30 million; so unique that enthusiasts came from around the country just to experience it; and so useful that people of all ages, cultures, and socio-economic levels flocked to it daily.

Fort Worth has such a thing — the Tandy Subway — but not for long. “The people in Fort Worth had something really special,” said Wesley E. Paulson, board member at National Capital Trolley Museum in Washington, D.C. “I don’t know of anything else like it in the world.” He is astounded that for so many years, an independent subway offered free trolley rides on vintage cars to a convenient downtown spot.

After almost 40 years of operation, the little subway makes its final run Aug. 30. RadioShack, which owns the subway and tunnel, plans to use the subway parking lot as a staging area during an upcoming construction project. The company paid $20 million for the adjacent Ripley Arnold public housing complex, which will be torn down to make way for RadioShack’s corporate campus. Safety concerns make it necessary to close the subway during construction, said RadioShack spokeswoman Jill Lain.

Company officials haven’t revealed the ultimate fate of the Tandy parking lot or the mile-long subway system with the tunnel that stretches beneath downtown for several blocks. “We have looked at a number of options,” Lain said. “To my knowledge we have not come to what we’re going to do at this point with the tunnel.”

One option apparently includes yanking up the track and electric lines and selling everything, including the vintage trolley cars, for a pittance.

Fort Worth Weekly published a Feb. 28 story about the shaky future of the subway. On May 14, Paulson sent an e-mail to the Weekly asking for an update on the subway’s future. “The Tandy cars are rebuilt from Washington, D.C., trolleys and we’d like to get some of the parts for our cars, including one that was sent to Fort Worth and was stripped for parts, and is now at our museum,” he wrote. Paulson was referred to RadioShack officials.

The Weekly telephoned Paulson on June 13 and asked if RadioShack had agreed to sell him parts.“The sense I got is they were trying to sell the whole system,” he said. “Tandy’s going to try to sell the whole thing as a lot, the whole fleet, the track, the wire, everything.” Paulson was disappointed that his museum wouldn’t be able to cherry-pick rare parts or purchase a single car. He said he didn’t know RadioShack’s asking price for the lot, but estimated the system might sell for about $200,000.

If somebody started from scratch and built the Tandy subway system as it is today, but with modern engineering standards, the cost would be about $30 million, said Paul Byrne, project manager for the Trinity Railway Express.

The beloved subway carried millions of passengers during the past four decades. Current riders include county employees, many of whom earn less than $30,000 a year, who have long enjoyed free parking. The county jail and courthouse are situated at downtown’s northwest corner near the Tandy lot. A Tarrant County Administrator’s Office survey of 1,450 county employees showed 27 percent park there free each day. “It’s a huge concern for our operation and particularly our confinement people,” Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said. “The most convenient place for them to park has been the Tandy lot. Hardly a day goes by without someone expressing concern to me about what’s going to happen and where people are going to park. It’s more stress on people who lead tremendously stressed lives already. ... I don’t know that there is any good solution to it right now.”

County officials are considering alternatives for parking and transportation, but most are directed at jurors. Some additional parking is being discussed for county employees, but most will have to pay for private parking or use public transportation.

RadioShack’s decision to discontinue the subway is unpopular, but nobody disputes that the company owns the subway and can do as it pleases. From Leonard’s Department Store in 1963 to RadioShack today, the subway’s owners have allowed anyone to park and ride for free. “We were living on borrowed time, and we have to face up to it,” County Commissioner Tom Vandergriff said.

The subway closure could even be viewed as a step toward relieving downtown congestion. About 1,800 jurors a week park free in the 3,000-space Tandy lot and hop on the subway or walk to downtown. County officials are discussing plans to provide jurors with free bus or train rides to downtown and to establish park-and-ride lots north and south of downtown within a 15-minute bus ride of the courthouse — a step that could reduce the number of cars helping to pollute downtown.

Getting people to accept public transportation won’t be easy. A survey of 3,155 jurors showed 92 percent drove their own cars to jury duty, and 75 percent parked at Tandy; 64 percent said they would not consider public transportation if free parking were no longer available. Public transportation was even less popular among county employees surveyed: 75 percent said they would not use it.

Although the success of Sundance Square and other developments has made downtown parking an increasing headache, Fort Worth remains relatively parking-friendly. During evenings and weekends, the city offers free meter parking, free garage parking at several spots, and free surface lot parking in Sundance Square. Losing the Tandy lot won’t mean a shortage of downtown parking places so much as a shortage of free parking spaces on weekdays. “We’ve had a sweetheart deal for four decades,” said Marc Flake, Tarrant County public information officer. “A major metropolitan area with free parking and a free air-conditioned subway ride to downtown — you don’t find places like that in cities in the United States.”

That’s why losing the subway is so painful. RadioShack is dismantling something that made Fort Worth unique. Downtown denizens were hurt by the loss of the Calder Eagle, a 39-foot metal sculpture that was sold by the previous Bank One tower owners and whisked away almost overnight in 1999. Earlier this year, a nonprofit foundation bucked city orders and sent a wrecking crew to destroy the 7th Street Theatre, which remains partially standing but poised to be demolished by year’s end. Losing the subway is just another punch in the city’s gut.

“It sucks, man,” said Daniel Shuck, a regular downtown visitor and subway rider. “This isn’t just a sculpture or theater, it’s got a lot of practical application. It’s a major convenience. People would pay to ride it. If RadioShack is smart, they can make money off this.”



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