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Port Authority pulls $150,000 annual funding for downtown Tampa trolley

TAMPA — The public agency that runs Tampa's port will end its six-figure annual subsidy of the already struggling streetcar that connects downtown, the Channel District and Ybor City.

Tampa Port Authority board members on Tuesday narrowly rejected a proposal to continue a $150,000 annual contribution to the nonprofit Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc.

They also turned down a motion to cut the subsidy to $50,000. Both proposals were defeated in 4-3 votes.

The funding cut amounts to nearly 10 percent of the streetcar's $1.51 million budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

''We'd be forced to further reduce service," said Tampa attorney David Mechanik, president of the nonprofit group's board, when asked how streetcar officials would handle the shortfall.

Ridership dropped 7 percent for the first half of 2011 from a year earlier. Only about $190,000 remains in the streetcar's endowment, and that is expected to run out next year.

The streetcar board voted last month to cut operating expenses 30 percent for the next fiscal year. Cars will run every 20 minutes instead of every 15 on Fridays and Saturdays.

The port authority first subsidized the streetcar in 2002 and contributed a total of $1.6 million through March.

Last year, the agency board members voted to pitch in $150,000 annually for three years, with the provision that they could review the decision each year.

None liked the idea of using port-generated revenues for a service that has little, if anything, to do with the shipping business. But Mayor Bob Buckhorn and others argued the community can't let the trolley fail.

"Its endowment has been drained; it's been poorly run," he said. "But we've put tens of millions of dollars into it. I have to do everything I can to make it succeed. It serves the greater good."

Others insisted it was time for the Port Authority to pull the plug.

"I love it," said board member Stephen Swindal, chairman of Marine Towing of Tampa. "But it's just that we're short of funds. I don't think it's an appropriate use of the maritime community's money."

The authority is largely funded through fees paid by shippers to use the port.

Streetcar boosters contend the service attracts cruise passengers and helps bring visitors to Channelside Bay Plaza. But port director Richard Wainio said he's never seen a reliable dollar figure on the trolley's benefit to the port.

"We've put over $1 million into this and I haven't been able to determine a return," he said.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes or (813) 226-3384.

Port Authority pulls $150,000 annual funding for downtown Tampa trolley 08/16/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 16, 2011 9:46pm]
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