Make us your home page

Mayor Buckhorn vows to save Tampa's struggling streetcars

TAMPA — The Tampa Port Authority board seemed on the verge Tuesday of killing an important $100,000 subsidy for the city's trolley when a champion swooped in at the last second and vowed to save those quaint yellow streetcars:

Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Buckhorn, who sits on the port's governing board, pledged to help turn around the struggling electric trolley that links downtown, Channelside and Ybor City. He will appoint new members to sit on the board of Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc. and help it draft new business, financial and marketing plans.

The mayor also implored his fellow port commissioners not to give up on the streetcars. Too much time and money have been invested since they first started rolling in 2002 to turn back now, he said.

"We're pregnant, fellas — and ladies," he said, catching himself as the crowd chuckled. "There's no going back. Let's figure out how to make this work."

Buckhorn's vision: The streetcars should run every few minutes and for free. They currently run every 20 minutes between noon and 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and noon to 9 p.m. Sundays. Each ride costs between $1.25 for seniors to $2.50 regular admission, and an all-day pass is $5.

People need to realize the streetcars will never be self-sustaining public transportation, Buckhorn said. Instead, they are an amenity to help sell the city.

But even the mayor had to agree with the trolley's critics.

"When I see this marketing plan it's the same marketing plan I saw 12 years ago, and nothing has happened since," Buckhorn said. "I have to say the marketing of this entity has been an abysmal failure.

"That being said, we need this. As a community we have a lot of skin in this game. We're not in a position to get the funding back. We have to find a way to make this work. … We're stuck with it. We can't stop it, and we need to fix it."

The seven board members then voted unanimously to continue the annual $100,000 subsidy — this year. It will have to be reauthorized annually.

The streetcars are a joint operation of the city and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit. If the trolley were to be scrapped altogether, Buckhorn said, then those entities might have to reimburse the federal government up to $40 million spent on the trolley's infrastructure.

"That's a lot of money," he said.

The mayor's speech came after Hillsborough County Commissioner and port board member Sandra Murman proposed ending the subsidy.

Momentum had turned against the subsidy after the port board heard from David Mechanik, the volunteer president of the nonprofit board that runs the trolley and controls its current $2 million budget.

The port commissioners learned that the $4 million endowment propping up the trolley is nearly depleted. Ridership has also plummeted since the 467,000 who rode it in 2009, when Tampa hosted Super Bowl XLIII. This year, it's projected to be 340,000 — a 27 percent drop.

Commissioner Lawrence Shipp noted that the trolley wasn't even efficient enough to take him from the authority's headquarters to lunch at Centro Ybor a mile away. It's quicker to make the five minute drive than waiting up to 20 minutes both ways for the trolley.

"I don't see it as being a true transportation system," Shipp said. "I almost see it as an amusement ride. I tell people it reminds me of Disneyland."

It became apparent during the discussion that the trolley's struggles are linked to Channelside Bay Plaza's struggles. The entertainment plaza continues to bleed businesses as Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik negotiates to take over the distressed property.

The port board learned Tuesday, though, that Vinik was "very close" to sealing the deal with the Anglo Irish Bank of Dublin, which took over the property when the previous owner defaulted on a $27 million loan in 2010.

Buckhorn said that's exactly why the trolley should be saved: The streetcars could rebound if Vinik can execute his plan to remake Channelside and link it to the nearby Tampa Bay Times Forum and the completed Riverwalk.

If the trolley lost the $100,000 subsidy, according to Mechanik, they'd have two years to replace it. But that might lead to even more cuts in services, which is why the streetcars now only run every 20 minutes.

Said Buckhorn: "Starving it to death is not an option."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.

Mayor Buckhorn vows to save Tampa's struggling streetcars 09/18/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 11:59pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Carrollwood fitness center employs scientific protocol to help clients


    In 2005, Al Roach and Virginia Phillips, husband and wife, opened 20 Minutes to Fitness in Lakewood Ranch, and last month they opened the doors to their new location in Carrollwood.

    Preston Fisher, a personal fitness coach at 20 Minutes To Fitness, stands with an iPad while general manager/owner Angela Begin conducts an equipment demonstration. The iPad is used to track each client's information and progress. I also included one shot of just the equipment. The center recently opened in Carrollwood. Photo by Danielle Hauser.
  2. Olive Tree branches out to Wesley Chapel


    WESLEY CHAPEL — When it came time to open a second location of The Olive Tree, owners John and Donna Woelfel, decided that Wesley Chapel was the perfect place.

    The Olive Tree expands its offerings of "ultra premium?€ extra virgin olive oils (EVOO) to a second location in Wesley Chapel. Photo by Danielle Hauser.
  3. Massachusetts firm buys Tampa's Element apartment tower

    Real Estate

    TAMPA — Downtown Tampa's Element apartment tower sold this week to a Massachusetts-based real estate investment company that plans to upgrade the skyscraper's amenities and operate it long-term as a rental community.

    The Element apartment high-rise at 808 N Franklin St. in downtown Tampa has been sold to a Northland Investment Corp., a Massachusetts-based real estate investment company. JIM DAMASKE  |  Times
  4. New York town approves Legoland proposal


    GOSHEN, N.Y. — New York is one step closer to a Lego dreamland. Goshen, a small town about fifty miles northwest of the Big Apple, has approved the site plan for a $500 million Legoland amusement park.

    A small New York town, Goshen approved the site plan for a $500 million Legoland amusement park. Legoland Florida is in Winter Haven. [Times file  photo]
  5. Jordan Park to get $20 million makeover and new senior housing

    Real Estate


    Times Staff Writer

    ST. PETERSBURG —The St. Petersburg Housing Authority, which bought back the troubled Jordan Park public housing complex this year, plans to spend about $20 million to improve the 237-unit property and construct a new three-story building for …

    Jordan Park, the historic public housing complex, is back in the hands of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. The agency is working to improve the 237-unit complex. But the latest plan to build a new three-story building for seniors will mean 31 families have to find new homes. [LARA CERRI   |   Tampa Bay Times]