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Breathing new life into Tampa's streetcar will take money, effort

Times (2014)
Though ridership on the electric trolleys has dropped from a high of 462,704 in 2009, city and business leaders are playing up the importance of revitalizing and expanding the line.

TAMPA — Local leaders who have long bemoaned Tampa's historic streetcar as an under-used, expensive, poorly managed transit option have recently refocused on making it more successful, starting first with discussions of overhauling the ownership structure.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the first step in breathing new life into the program is to abolish its board, which oversees the streetcar along with the city of Tampa and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

"The board has served its purpose," Buckhorn said. "I think in the streetcar's next chapter, it will be run by one organization, not a triparty agreement."

Under the current agreement, HART is in charge of operation and maintenance, but the right-of-way is owned by the city and the streetcar is managed by the Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc. board.

"Clearly, part of the next step is determining some level of ownership for the process," HART CEO Katherine Eagan said. "The community outreach, the long-range planning, where do all these other things fall? They simply don't get done because no one's charged with them."

Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and downtown properties, included revitalized plans for the streetcar in his December announcement about development plans.

"There were very good intentions with the streetcar when it first went into service," Vinik said. "But, frankly, it needs to run more frequently. It needs to transport guests from one location to another quicker. It needs to become a means by which people can go from their downtown offices to Channelside, to Ybor, to have lunch and to make it back in time for work."

On a recent Wednesday, after the streetcar extended its hours to cater to a German cruise ship full of 1,200 passengers, HART got a glimpse of what expanded service would look like. Ridership surged more than 300 percent, with ridership jumping to 1,700 people from the Wednesday average of 575.

HART is still crunching the numbers, but if the money generated by fares covered the operational cost, Eagan said the cars could routinely start running at 9 a.m. when ships are in port. But that would be only a three-hour extension on select days, and riders would still have to wait 20 minutes between cars.

The woes and pitfalls of the service are not new. Buckhorn vowed in 2012 to turn around the struggling electric trolley that links downtown, Channelside and Ybor City. Yet, ridership has continued to drop, from a high of 462,704 in 2009 to 277,806 in 2014, the lowest year yet.

But a renewed interest in downtown development and public-transit options have refocused efforts. A recent study commissioned by HART explored four options for extending Tampa's struggling streetcar through downtown and upgrading it to a modern streetcar.

"I'm serious when I call it a priority," Vinik said. "It's an important part again of transforming downtown Tampa."

To reach that point, Eagan said the focus needs to first be on improving the product before expanding its routes or upgrading the cars.

"A streetcar that starts at noon is not a product for a downtown or Ybor worker," Eagan said. "If it runs every 20 minutes, it's not a product that's competitive with any other method of transportation."

HART has looked into what it would take to increase frequency from 20 to 15 minutes. The more frequent schedule that people are interested in would cost an additional $1 million.

"HART can definitely commit to running a stronger schedule," Eagan said. "We can make that happen pretty quickly, if the funding is there."

But the question of funding is a big one for which few seem to have an answer. Federal funding is appropriated toward capital costs, such as expanding routes or upgrading streetcars, Eagan said. Operational funds have to come from elsewhere, and fares and ad valorem taxes for buses can't be directed to the streetcar.

When asked if he would consider investing in the streetcar, Vinik said it's too early to talk about funding sources.

"I think we're first going to need to have a process in place and work with others in the community to figure out what works best long term," he said.

Buckhorn said people "look fawningly upon the city as a provider of last resort," but this isn't a cost the city can fund entirely.

"I don't have a million dollars lying around," he said. "We're going to have to cobble it together from all kinds of different places."

And that's only the short-term solution. The long-term goal of expanding through downtown would cost between $30 million and $60 million, and upgrading to modern streetcars — including track, station and power upgrades — would double that, the HART study showed.

"I think everybody needs to recognize that the streetcar as we know it may not look like the streetcar of the future," Buckhorn said. "Those streetcars are symbolically important to Tampa, but, in terms of practicality, a more modern streetcar vehicle would be a much greater service than what we have now."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.