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Tampa's history and its future: Bullfights, trolleys and lessons learned

I wanted to get Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn to take a ride with me on the city's beleaguered streetcar — maybe talk boondoggles we both have known — but who has time for that?

In truth, the street car isn't all that convenient.

It comes only every 20 minutes.

It's expensive.

Oh, and did I mention it's also really charming?

So there's your streetcar dilemma: what to do with the struggling trolley line Tampa finds itself both struck and graced with.

Years back, with downtown growing up and adding Channelside, an aquarium, a hockey arena, hotels and such, some people thought it was a great time for an old-school electric trolley to be reborn, the likes of which were last seen here in the 1940s.

It would be nostalgic! It would whisk tourists to Ybor City! It would make money selling naming rights! (Unless, of course, strip club owner Joe Redner stepped up with cash in hand to name a trolley stop for his world-famous Mons Venus club, which was declined.)

A notable naysayer 15 years ago was Buckhorn himself, then a city councilman and the lone no-vote. "People," he said then, "aren't going to come to Tampa to ride a streetcar."

(Historical trivia: Lest you think a streetcar was our wackiest idea for attracting visitors to something uniquely Tampa-esque, I have two words for you: bloodless bullfighting. True story: In the 1970s, a law passed that would allow for plans for "non-lethal" bullfights in Ybor City. The anti-cruelty opposition crescendoed, however, when, at a related event in Bradenton, a bull escaped and was shot dead by police. Then-Mayor Dick Greco told me this week he learned a valuable political lesson back then: "You don't want to mess with the Humane Society.")

Fast-forward and here we are in a pinch over the future of our streetcar, a cool amenity not used nearly enough, and one we literally can't afford to lose.

The streetcars do make a nice picture, particularly when there's a big downtown event and the yellow cars fill with people and go clanging and swaying down the tracks along the brick streets of Ybor.

But marketing has been anemic and uninspired. Ridership this year is projected to be down 27 percent from 2009 and an endowment is nearly tapped. The streetcar doesn't run most days until noon and is infrequent enough to make it not much use to the downtown crowd. The standard $2.50 one-way fare helping to keep it alive is too much, even for a tourist jumping on for the novelty of it.

Dump it, you say? That could leave us having to reimburse the federal government up to $40 million, Buckhorn says. Not a great option.

So what's a mayor to do? You can disagree with Buckhorn on, say, downtown security cameras watching our every move, but on this one, he struck the right note: Save the trolley, because we have to.

This week, the mayor stepped up to convince the port authority board to continue a $100,000 subsidy for the streetcar. He wants fresh blood and invested voices on the streetcar board. And since it will never pay for itself, why not make it free and frequent, an easy attraction for the city?

Can Tampa's charming, endangered trolley be saved?

I know this much: A ride on our streetcar beats a bloodless bullfight any day.

Tampa's history and its future: Bullfights, trolleys and lessons learned 09/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 22, 2012 1:08am]
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