The Tampa Port Authority made a shortsighted decision to abruptly end its $150,000 annual subsidy to the cash-strapped streetcar. The streetcar may be tangential to the port's primary business, but it brings people to the waterfront, and it is an affordable marketing tool to develop the port over the long term. The board should revisit its decision, and then the community should have a broader discussion about saving the trolley.
The port board narrowly rejected two funding requests: One would have continued a three-year commitment, made just last year, of $150,000 annually. (That contribution was subject to annual approval.) The board also rejected a fallback option to provide $50,000. Opponents said they saw little direct benefit, especially in a tight budget year, between the streetcar and the port's core operations.
The benefit to the port is clear. The port owns the land under the Channelside Bay Plaza retail and entertainment complex. The trolley brings paying customers to its bars and restaurants, and to port-owned parking facilities. Having a fun, easy way to get around builds tourism. Over time, the trolley also could serve as a functional amenity for the new condos in the district and the waterfront venues. The port authority collects nearly $14 million annually in dedicated property tax from Hillsborough residents. It can afford to give something back to the larger public good in return.
The trolley, though, shouldn't be relying every year on the port for 10 percent of its budget. The port should follow through this year to spare the trolley from imposing deeper service cuts and draining its cash reserves. But the trolley board needs to develop a much wider funding base.
The county should recognize that starving the streetcar undermines tourism, development and the convention business from the downtown channel district to Ybor City. The streetcar should do a better job securing private fundraising and advertising. It also could use some tourist tax money. But there should be no question that it is an invaluable asset on the most action-packed stretch of Tampa's downtown waterfront.