TAMPA — Officials had a tug-of-war Wednesday over a $900,000 grant that could help Tampa's streetcar extend its tracks into the heart of downtown.
The county's transit agency, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, is debating whether to spend that money on the streetcar or on more frequent service on its busiest bus route, Nebraska Avenue.
HART's board members, a mix of city and county officials and appointees, are facing a tight deadline to make the decision. But in the end, streetcar supporters bought themselves two more weeks to make their case.
The $900,000 federal grant was slated for the streetcar, but it will expire soon. The HART board voted last month to use it for buses because plans for the streetcar extension weren't ready and board members didn't want to risk losing the money.
But the board that oversees the streetcar cried foul. The Tampa City Council voted to ask HART to reconsider. That led to Wednesday's debate.
HART board member David Mechanik said the city and HART have invested millions in the streetcar, and the extension is crucial to attract more local passengers. "It would seem a terrible waste for us to change course in midstream," he said.
But County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said HART should focus on its "core mission" of offering people an alternative to cars, and the grant could help prime the Nebraska Avenue bus route for an upcoming, high-tech "bus rapid transit" line there.
The board also got conflicting advice about whether time is really running out on the grant. A state transportation official said there is some leeway, while a HART staffer said they shouldn't count on that.
The streetcar board is working on a plan to balance the system's books and win support for the extension. It helps that growth in the Channel District will boost revenue from a special property tax along the streetcar route, said Mark Huey, Tampa's economic development director.
With the $900,000 grant, officials would have $3.4-million for the extension, which a consultant estimated would cost $3.7-million to $4.25-million, he said. "We're close. We're on the verge."
HART will tackle the subject in two weeks in a joint meeting with the streetcar's board.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3435.