TAMPA — Between construction, a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game and typical rush-hour traffic, it was difficult to get to the Downtowner launch party near Channelside Thursday night.
But the heavy traffic created a fitting backdrop for the launch of the new shuttle service, which hopes to encourage downtown residents and visitors to leave their cars in the garage.
The 12 electric vehicles took to Tampa's streets offering free rides to anywhere within the downtown district, which spans from the north end of Harbor Island to Interstate 275, and from the University of Tampa area to the Channel District.
The only tips exchanged are advice from drivers, who are also trained Tampa tour guides.
"They'll know where goods and services are, what events are coming downtown and when, and can be a great touch-point for all of our visitors and residents," said Greg Minder, chairman of the Tampa Downtown Partnership.
The mobile app-driven service works similar to Uber or Lyft. Users request a ride to a certain location on their smartphone or tablet, putting in their location and the number of people in their party, and the app shows who will pick them up and how long it will take. Links to download the company's app are available at ridedowntowner.com.
Ryan Spaargaren, chief financial officer and founding member of the Downtowner, said the app also allows users to put in identifying information, like the color hat they're wearing, or other information to help the driver identify them. Once inside, a tablet inside the vehicle provides information about downtown Tampa.
The electric vehicles only travel 25 mph and are allowed on all roads where the speed limit is below 35 mph.
The Tampa Downtown Partnership estimated the shuttles, which seat 5 passengers, would net about 860 riders a day, or about 26,000 a month.
The Downtowner also has operated in Boca Raton, Delray Beach and Aspen, Colo., since 2012, Spaargaren said.
Funding from the Tampa Downtown Partnership, the City of Tampa, the Florida Department of Transportation and local businesses will keep the service operating for the next three years for seven days a week — 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
The total cost of the service was not disclosed. In April, Tampa City Council agreed to pay $560,000 from downtown and Channel District community development funds to launch the project, and the Florida Department of Transportation pledged $150,000 for three years.
Once funding runs out, the hope is the vehicles will pay for themselves through advertising or help from the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, which regulates the county's for-hire vehicles, such as taxis.
"This kind of thing wasn't really considered when the PTC was formed," Minder said.
A similar shuttle service operated in downtown Tampa until the PTC shut it down in 2010, saying it competed with taxicab services and that the open-body vehicles were unsafe.
Unlike the old privately run services, some of which carried passengers as far as Ybor City and Hyde Park, the Downtowner has a limited area of operation and PTC members have indicated they would not oppose the project.
These small, white vehicles look like regular electric cars, with windows, doors and air conditioning, that make for a more comfortable experience, said Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez.
"This is about freedom," Suarez said. "The more options we give people, the more freedom we give them, the more robust all of our transportation options will be."
Suarez was one of the first to take a ride in the Downtowner, from City Hall to the launch party in the plaza outside the Grand Central at Kennedy housing complex.
"It was a beautiful trip," Suarez said. "As the weather gets cooler it's a great option to get from one place to another whether you're in a suit like I am or in shorts."
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