As novelties go, Tampa's electric street car system is cute as the dickens. All those yellow cars recalling a bygone time. The conductors in their period getup. It's all so very charming.
But nostalgia comes at a price. And it's not pretty.
While the trolley system with its honking horns and ringing bells is very nice, nice is not enough. But it is oh so very Tampa — a day late and $100,000 short.
What is it about this place and its seeming inability to ever get much of anything involving transportation remotely right?
From the Chinese fire drill that constitutes the I-275/I-4 junction, to the ill-planned Veterans Expressway, to the vehicular refugee camp otherwise known as Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, why can't we figure out any of this stuff?
After all, this is the same place that once had a monorail system linking Harbour Island to the — ahem — mainland of Tampa, a distance of about half a mile that had no stop at the convention center. Duh.
This is also the same place that once seriously considered installing giant nets on the elevated portion of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway to capture errant cars going the wrong way. Really, people were serious about that.
So it hardly should come as a surprise the streetcar system faced a $100,000 shortfall, a problem only solved at the last minute by Mayor Bob Buckhorn's ability to persuade the Tampa Port Authority to continue the subsidy.
The problems hounding the streetcars are pretty simple and pretty obvious. The solutions are another matter.
Quite simply, the streetcars are little more than a glorified carnival ride. If you want to get from the greater Channelside area to Ybor City — and you have plenty of time on your hands — then swell, the trolley will get you back and forth eventually.
That's peachy if you are a tourist. And no doubt you'll enjoy the leisurely pace of the experience. But if you want to make the same trip as a downtown worker for lunch, three simple words: Are you nuts?
And therein lies the problem. The trolley is a tourist attraction, not a mode of utilitarian transportation. There's a huge difference.
Thus an elemental question. What do the city mandarins want the trolley to be? And — gulp — how much is everyone willing to pay for it?
The trolley, with its limited route, was ill-conceived from the start. In a perfect world, or at least a Tampa world where people would commit the revolutionary act of thinking things through, the streetcar system would have been designed as a loop from downtown Tampa, through Channelside, to Ybor City, up through Tampa Heights and then back to downtown.
That way — and here's the revolutionary part — people would actually use it to get around the core of the city — tourists, downtown workers, city dwellers. A real, genuine, light rail system!
Expensive? You betcha.
It was 10 years ago that the trolley first began rolling between Channelside and Ybor. Ten long, long years of back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. This is the Sisyphus of public transportation.
But what's the better approach? A trolley operating on a limited route, or one that more people would use, which could enhance the appeal of Tampa's core to residents and visitors alike?
Buckhorn's political skills have saved the trolley for the moment. That's good. Now the challenge is to expand the system's value and worthiness.
For that, the mayor will need to be a magician.