TAMPA — A few weeks ago, the plan to run electric streetcars into the heart of downtown Tampa appeared to be in serious trouble. If it wasn't dead, it was at least on life support.
But officials who had been at odds hammered out an agreement Tuesday to extend the streetcar tracks from the Tampa Convention Center into downtown's core of office towers beginning next year.
The ultimate goal is to get more local passengers and office workers on board, in addition to the tourists and conventioneers who mostly ride the streetcar now.
Streetcar boosters like David Mechanik call the extension "the missing link."
"We have always wanted to make this connection to the downtown core," said Mechanik, president of the board that oversees the streetcar. "This opens up the opportunity for people to use it as a commuter service to get to and from work," particularly between the Channel District and downtown.
The streetcar runs nearly 2 1/2 miles between Ybor City, Channelside, the St. Pete Times Forum and the Convention Center.
If all goes according to plan, officials will break ground next year on a $3.8-million to $4.4-million project to lay tracks alongside four blocks of Franklin Street, up to the Tampa City Center esplanade and the Fort Brooke parking garage. Streetcars could be running there by mid 2010.
To pay for it, they agreed Tuesday to use a $2-million grant that was set aside years ago for an Ybor City streetcar museum that never happened. Along with other federal grants, local transit officials now have about $4.5-million for the extension.
Tuesday's agreement settled a dispute between the streetcar board and the county's mass transit agency, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit. They've been battling over whether to spend a separate $900,000 federal grant on the streetcar extension or on more buses for Tampa's busiest bus route, Nebraska Avenue. It will now go to buses.
HART and streetcar officials also are tackling a bigger problem that's been standing in the way of the downtown extension: the question of the streetcar's long-term financial survival.
The streetcar has been burning through a $5-million endowment that was set up to operate it, with recent estimates saying it could run out of money in just three years.
The streetcar board will cut costs by scaling back service from Monday to Thursday, downsizing from four cars to two and running them faster.
They're also making what city and transit officials say are conservative, realistic projections of how future growth downtown and in the Channel District will boost revenue from a special property tax along the streetcar route.
They now estimate that the streetcar's endowment will last until 2022, at which point a special assessment will make up the difference. The tax, $33 per $100,000 of assessed property value, is paid by businesses and rental units along the route.
This is what prompted Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio to change her mind and support the streetcar extension. She had been skeptical because the city would have to take over the streetcar's funding if it runs out of money.
"It's a plan that makes sense. That's what she was waiting for," said Tampa economic development director Mark Huey.
The Tampa City Council will vote on the matter next week. City Council member John Dingfelder, who's on the HART board, said it's important that city taxpayers won't be on the hook to pay for the streetcar.
The streetcar's critics say it's a pricey boondoggle that should be mothballed, while supporters say it has spurred development around Channelside and is a marketing tool in Tampa's bids to attract conventions and events.
Rose Ferlita, a county commissioner and HART board member, thinks the streetcar is vital for local tourism. "Although some people won't be convinced that this is money well spent, I wholeheartedly disagree," she said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.