It is not a stretch to say that once nearly everybody in Tampa rode the streetcar.
"There was no corner of our community that wasn't accessible to the little yellow streetcars of my youth," 89-year-old artist Ferdie Pacheco writes in his memoir, Ybor City Chronicles.
"We went to school on them, went to work, to dances, to movies, to the downtown shopping areas, to Sulphur Springs to swim and to Ballast Point to enjoy the factory picnics."
And streetcars weren't just for working stiffs. Early on, a New York socialite who wintered in Tampa enjoyed shopping and sight-seeing in her own private trolley car.
At its peak in 1926, Tampa's streetcars carried nearly 24 million passengers, running from 4:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. That was in a city of no more than 101,000 people — less than a third of Tampa's population today.
By comparison, last year Hillsborough Area Regional Transit buses carried about 14 million passengers. And that was in a county of more than 1.3 million people.
Now City Hall and the Florida Department of Transportation are again trying to figure out what the future of the streetcar could — and should — be in Tampa.
The original streetcar carried its last passenger in 1946. It was killed by complaints that it was noisy and got in the way of cars, plus that at 5 cents a trip the farebox never turned a profit.
In 2002, the city and county re-launched a mini-version of the original trolley. Instead of 53 miles of tracks, it has just 2.7. Its ridership is less than 300,000 a year. And it was originally launched principally for tourists going between the Tampa Convention Center and Ybor City.
Now, with the growth of downtown's residential population and employment, plus the activation of the waterfront and the spread of development to the west side of the Hillsborough River, officials are studying whether the streetcar could be made into a viable transportation option for residents, workers and visitors to downtown and nearby neighborhoods like Tampa Heights and the University of Tampa.
FDOT is putting in $1 million for the study, with $677,390 more coming from the city of Tampa.
About 100 people turned out last week for the first of three public meetings being held as part of the project. It was, not surprisingly, a crowd that liked downtown, liked transit and, generally, liked the streetcar, but also saw room for improvement.
"For most of our residents to get on it, it's got to be frequent, and it's got to be cool," said Vance Arnett, who has lived in the Channel District since 2012 and is president of the Channel District Community Alliance. "We won't get on a dirty bus. We won't get in a filthy taxi, and we don't want to wait an hour and 20 minutes for it to come. ... The final thing is: Please put the stops where people can get at them, and keep them open."
Over the next few months, the city and its consultants will work to identify a limited number of possibilities for extending and updating the streetcar system. This could mean going with a more modern type of streetcar than Tampa's existing old-style trolleys, said Steve Schukraft of HDR, the city's consultant on the project.
Fully developing a plan, which would include identifying grants or other funding, is expected to take until the summer of 2018.
An estimate included in the now-abandoned Go Hillsborough transportation initiative put the local cost of extending the street car at $146 million, plus $5 million a year to operate it.
"That's why we're doing the study: to get real numbers on it and a real route and to determine whether or not it's feasible and how far we should extend it," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. With extended hours, a reasonable fare and maybe with trolleys with modern amenities, he said an expanded streetcar could work in Tampa's urban core.
But, Buckhorn said, "I'm not going to make the mistake they made when they built that trolley: To not have a business plan, to not look at where the demand would come from, to not run the vehicles to places where people are going to use it. ... I'd like to do it, if it makes sense, but it's got to work."
This report includes information from the book, "Tampa: A History of the City of Tampa and the Tampa Bay region of Florida," by Karl H. Grismer. Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times