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Expanded Tampa streetcar system gets first public approval

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Riders take in the last few stops of the streetcar route in Ybor City during the tenth anniversary celebration of the TECO line streetcar system in Tampa in 2012. Now officials are looking for ways to expand the service north through downtown to Tampa Heights. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]

TAMPA ó The plan to extend the TECO Line Streetcar system north through downtown got its first positive reviews from the public on Tuesday night.

The streetcar system already runs from Ybor City to the Channel District. The aim of a $1.7 million study to look at expanding service is to choose the path to reach more of downtown and extend the system north to Tampa Heights.

The Invision: Tampa Streetcar study selected two preferred routes for the extension of the existing 2.7-mile streetcar line. Both routes travel an additional 1.3 miles from E Whiting Street north to E Palm Avenue.

TAMPAíS STREETCAR SYSTEM

Breathing new life into Tampaís streetcar will take money, effort (Jan. 18, 2015)

Tampa trolley study identifies seven expansion alternatives (May 3, 2017)

The main difference between the two options is that one runs there and back on N Franklin Street while the other is a loop along Tampa Street and Florida Avenue.

"Itís really getting into the core of downtown, which is what the current line misses," said Steve Schukraft, project manager with HDR, the firm running the study.

Planners presented the recommended routes at a community workshop Tuesday evening.

Of about 50 people in attendance, most voiced support for the routes. In a poll asking for immediate reactions to the choice, voters overwhelmingly responded "very favorable," signified by a heart-eyes emoji, or "favorable," a simple smiley.

The decision to move forward establishes a corridor on which the team can focus. Asked how they would measure success, HDR vice president David Vozzolo said they would compare ridership and other measurements to cities with streetcar and light rail options they find successful. Those include Kansas City, Mo.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Charlotte, N.C.

Schukfraft said this step represents a milestone in the process. But he added that expanding the streetcar isnít the only needed improvement. The service itself most also improve to make it a more attractive transportation option. Higher ridership in turn would help make it a more sustainable option, too.

"No matter what we do, no matter what technology, weíve got to provide more frequent service," Schukraft said.

Ideally, the streetcar would run every 10 to 15 minutes and make stops about every third of a mile, Schukraft said. The streetcar currently runs every 20 minutes, but officials have long desired to make the system more user-friendly to get more people to use it.

"One of the arts of the project is to figure out enough stops to make it convenient for people to walk to, but not too many stops that youíre slowing it down," Schukraft said.

TAMPA BAY TIMES REPORT: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Hereís why. (Feb. 16, 2017)

The study considered other routes, such as an east-west option out to North Hyde Park and another that makes a loop around the city. The two recommended options fared well in a range of factors, including capital and operating costs and connections to jobs and housing.

Both options would cost between $94 and $97 million to build and about $3.6 million to operate each year.

Theyíre also the shortest of the seven options that were considered.

"That shorter length still provides really good service to places with really strong projections for population and employment," Schukraft said.

The second phase of the study, expected to wrap up next fall, will evaluate ridership projections, specific stops and costs. The goal is to apply for federal funding through Small Starts, Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) or other federal grant programs. But federal and state grants almost always require a local match of some sort.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has advocated for transit improvements for Tampa and the region, said the sticking point continues to be whether leaders can find money to build and maintain the system.

In Florida, only counties, not cities, can hold voter referendums. Sales taxes are the most popular method nationwide for paying for transit. But one such initiative failed in Hillsborough in 2010, and commissioners refused to even put the question on the ballot in 2016.

"As long as the city is held hostage by the county and their inability to look at a potential referendum for transportation," Buckhorn said, "weíre going to have a problem."

Other midsized cities, such as Cincinnati and Kansas City, have recently spent millions of dollars to bring streetcars to their downtowns and expand their existing transit networks.

The InVision: Tampa Streetcar study is coordinating with a larger regional effort to bring "premium" transit options, such as commuter rail, light rail or express bus, to Tampa Bay.

TAMPA BAY TIMES TRANSIT COVERAGE:

After six years of growth, Pinellas and Hillsborough see sudden drop in bus ridership (Jan. 23, 2017)

HART bus service will improve for most riders, but some Hillsborough areas will lose routes altogether (June 19, 2017)

Even transit leaders donít rely on their own buses (July 20, 2017)

Depend on a HART bus to get around? Life could get harder. (Oct. 6, 2017)

Hillsborough bus riders adjust to new realities, good and bad (Oct. 9, 2017)

Business leaders, such as Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, have expressed interest in improving Tampa Bayís transit system ó which is one of the worst in the country for a region its size. Vinik has called repeatedly for an expanded streetcar that would serve those who live and work downtown. Such a system would also serve the $3 billion urban redevelopment program, Water Street Tampa, that Vinik and Cascade Investment have partnered on.

Vinik said he was glad to see that the next phase of the study will also evaluate what type of vehicles will be best ó whether itís the current cars that run on the track, more modern rail cars, buses or even autonomous vehicles.

The important part, he said, is that they have their own dedicated lane so they donít get caught up in other traffic.

He also encouraged planners to "aspire a little bigger."

"For the streetcar to really be useful Ö itís got to go to the right places, itís got to run frequently enough and there must be enough streetcars purchased," he said. "You canít do this halfway.

"It has to really be done extremely well or else itís just not going to be successful."

Staff Writer Langston Taylor contributed reporting.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.