As Trinity River Vision Plan Blurs, Organizers Spend Tax Dollars on Trolley Car Concept

The expansive construction area north of downtown Fort Worth is, at least for now, an island in some doubt.

Some city leaders are even questioning whether Panther Island will ever be completed, with water – instead of dry land – finally under the partially built bridges…

Especially after the federal government cut funding on the $1.1 billion project, started more than a decade ago as a flood control measure.

But at the Tarrant Regional Water District, which is overseeing the project, the plans keep on rolling …

Including talk of an island trolley line.

In the last several years, the water district has spent almost $50,000 of taxpayer money to study trolleys, according to records obtained by NBC 5 Investigates.

And internal emails show that as recently as March, the two top officials in charge of the Panther Island project, Jim Oliver and J.D. Granger, traveled to Little Rock, Ark., to view “the trolley car operation” in that city.

Clyde Picht, who was on the Fort Worth city council when the project was approved more than a decade ago, at a much smaller cost, said solving the funding problems for Panther Island should take precedent over any talk of starting a trolley line.

“I can’t see why they would on their own go off and start looking at trolleys. They’ve got enough problems with what they’re really in charge of already,” Picht said.

He added, “They don’t have any business even contemplating the addition of a trolley system until there is something to provide transportation to.”

Records obtained by NBC 5 Investigates show the water district and the entity created to manage the project, the Trinity River Vision Authority, have already come up with a name for the trolley service – the “Leonard-Tandy Trolley.”

The name is taken from Fort Worth’s long-defunct subway line, first operated by Leonard’s Department Store, shuttling customers to and from the downtown store.

The subway line was later taken over by another familiar name in Fort Worth -- the Tandy Corporation.

The line ceased operations 16 years ago, though the tunnel in which it ran is still in existence, snaking under the northern edge of downtown Fort Worth.

Granger, head of the TRVA, and his fiancée, Shanna Cate, who is a water district employee, have been researching the possibility of restoring the old cars for use on Panther Island.

And last October, Cate told the TRVA development committee that a company had been hired “for cost estimation of refurbishing” a subway car into a trolley car.

Asked what a trolley line has to do with flood control, Granger said, “Always remember there’s three parts to this project. There’s a flood control project. There’s a bridge project. And there’s a community initiative project that’s much broader than the flood control project by itself.”

Granger and his boss, Oliver, who leads the water district, told NBC 5 Investigates the trolley discussions are part of the work assigned to them by the city of Fort Worth to find ways to increase the land value in the project.

They point to a study, paid for by the water district, that suggests a trolley would help spur development, which in turn would generate more money to help pay for the project.

“The studies are showing we make a small investment, we get a big return,” Oliver said.

Both men insist there are no plans for the water district to actually build or operate a trolley system.

“TRWD’s never going to be in the train business. TRV(A) is not going to be in the train business,” Granger said, adding, that the study was only meant to determine whether a trolley service was “feasible for somebody (else) to do.”

Granger and Oliver now hope a private developer or a separate non-profit group will pay to finish what they have started.

Still, one member of the water district board, Leah King, questioned whether trolley talk is distracting the staff from more important issues.

“My hope is that we maintain our focus on ensuring we have ample funding for the bypass channel and all other flood control components, and not get distracted by trolleys or other nonessential items,” King said in a statement to NBC 5 Investigates.

There is, however, another member of the TRWD board who enjoys talking about subways, trolleys and most anything else that involves Fort Worth history.

That is Marty Leonard, whose father John Marvin Leonard, known as “Mr. Marvin,” opened his store in 1918.

Leonard told NBC 5 Investigates she’s proud of her family’s heritage in the city, and of the subway line they started in the early 1960s.

But when it comes to talk about the water district reviving trolleys on Panther Island, Leonard had this to say: No Comment.

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