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 thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

Mayor Buckhorn vows to save Tampa's struggling streetcars 09/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 12:59am]

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