TAMPA — Many people who ride the free, app-based shuttle known as the Downtowner are getting a shock this month when their driver pulls up.
Since it launched two years ago, the service has relied on a fleet of GEM electric vehicles that look like elongated golf carts. Now, passengers are treated to a ride aboard a sleek Tesla Model X SUV with air conditioning and Falcon Wing back doors that swing up for entry.
And it’s still free.
"I think it’ll change the way people think about getting around downtown," said Karen Kress, director of transportation and planning for the Tampa Downtown Partnership.
There’s more at stake than a sweeter ride. The all-electric Teslas can stay on the road longer between charges, reducing wait times and — the partnership hopes — increasing demand for a service that now moves an average of about 540 people per day.
The five-passenger GEM had its own charm, Kress said, but the fleet was limited in speed, comfort and durability. The carts averaged only about 60 miles before they needed more juice.
"That meant half of them were on the road and half were on a power cord at any one time," she said.
The four Teslas, with a range of more than 200 miles and the same five-passenger capability, can run all day before they need a charge.
Still, the all-wheel drive SUVs with their 17-inch driver display screen and front trunk or "frunk" take a little getting used to. The recessed door handle has some riders puzzling over how to get in, and they need the driver to press a button for the Falcon Wing door to let them out.
"The one word we hear from passengers is ‘fancy,’" said Gerald Goodwin, a Downtowner driver.
They shouldn’t fall in love with the Teslas, though: The SUVs are going away in March once the lease is up. The cars first were acquired to provide rides to and from bus stops around the University of South Florida at $3 a trip under a program launched with much fanfare in April 2017 by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit.
The program ended earlier this month. HART is in talks with the nonprofit Tampa Downtown Partnership to take over the Downtowner service next year and will continue paying the lease and maintenance costs on the Teslas while the partnership picks up insurance costs of $33,580.
Once HART redeployed the Teslas, their blue-and-white bus-service wraps were replaced with advertising wraps for downtown businesses such as the American Social restaurant and bar.
When the Teslas go away, they’ll be replaced by Chevrolet Bolts — another electric car that the Downtowner already has in its fleet. Since the Bolts were added, they have completed roughly 12 percent more rides per hour than the GEMs. Kress expects a similar performance boost from the Teslas.
"The range of the two vehicles allows us to move more people with less resources," she said.
Riders can’t request the fancy Teslas. A Tesla or Bolt shows up based on where riders land in line once they submit pickup and dropoff points on the Downtowner phone app. Wait times average about 26 minutes, with the heaviest demand coming during morning and evening rush hours and at lunch.
One of the program’s most popular pickup and drop-off locations is the Marion Transit Center, home base of the HART bus system. Much of the demand for the Downtowner is driven by commuters looking to cover the first and last miles of their trip between home and work, from a bus stop or a parking site.
In its nearly two years of operation, the Downtowner says it has carried 328,530 riders across a service area that stretches generally from northern Harbor Island to Interstate 275, and from the Channel District west to the University of Tampa.
The service costs $1 million a year, paid for with city redevelopment property tax revenue plus state and federal funds as well as money from the partnership and downtown hotels, office towers and developers.
More changes are coming to the services starting next week. Hours of operation are being trimmed, drivers may start accepting tips, and a shuttle van will be added to carry more passengers at a time and to serve people with disabilities.
Here are the new hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m. to 10 Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays.