If you build it, they will come. That's the theory behind the TECO Line Streetcar System. This week, officials celebrated a $5.3 million extension to the track and grand opening of the Whiting Street station, which brings riders into the downtown core. The tracks now stretch from the Tampa Convention Center up Franklin Street to the brick courtyard of fountains and trees amid downtown's office towers. Business owners along the stretch are pleased, hoping the extension will give their storefronts fresh exposure. Franklin Street was a bumpy asphalt patchwork before, said David Mangione, co-owner of Hattricks, across from the new station. Since the extension opened in December, Mangione has seen new business from riders. Streetcar drivers have come in to ask about the menu, so they can direct visitors. "In essence, the streetcar cleaned up the street," he said.
Money for the station and the extension, which stretches a third of a mile, came mostly from the federal government, including $1 million in stimulus funds. The city of Tampa chipped in $30,000.
Fares from riders have yet to cover operating costs since the 2002 streetcar line was constructed from Ybor City to the Tampa Convention Center. It is projected to operate at a 10 percent deficit next year, officials say.
Still, the system has spurred a billion dollars in private development alongside the route in the past eight years and is a marketing tool in Tampa's bids to attract conventions and events, such as the Republican National Convention, said Marcia Mejia, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority.
Visitors, like Janice Dickenson from North Dakota, rely on public transportation and make up many of the riders. Dickenson hopped aboard this week at the new station with a group sporting name tags and headed to Ybor City.
The entire line is now 2.7 miles. There are no efforts under way to lay more track, but a master plan shows the streetcar reaching farther into downtown, perhaps linking riders to the planned high-speed rail line.
Saturdays typically see 2,600 riders on the streetcar system, officials say. On Gasparilla weekends, including two weeks ago, ridership spiked to about 10,000. The weekend of Super Bowl XLIII saw 46,515 streetcar riders.
The Whiting Street station has a public art display, featuring an array of colorful lights that create a wave effect, turning on at dusk and off at dawn.
The goal of the new stretch of track is to offer "greener" transit options not only for visitors but for locals commuting to and from work downtown, such as those working for the University of South Florida's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, Mejia said.
This week at the Whiting Street station, streetcar driver Rafael Rosado maneuvered the car's electrical line to reverse direction and so head back toward the convention center.
Riders meanwhile chatted about cigar smoking and asked Rosado where it's allowed. Shane Thomas climbed on after stopping by his bank. The 28-year-old regularly takes the line from his Ybor City home to his job in Channelside.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at (813) 226-3431 or email@example.com