Tampa officials need to do everything they can to keep the city's streetcar running and viable. It is a wonderful tourist amenity that has helped to make Ybor City, the Florida Aquarium, Channelside, the St. Pete Times Forum and the hotels along its route more accessible and attractive to visitors. Yet the debate over whether to extend the streetcar has those who should be championing it running for cover. That attitude will roll back the gains Tampa made during the boom of the '90s, hurting tourism, the new publicly supported museums breaking ground and downtown's budding residential market.
Officials must decide by April whether to commit a $900,000 federal grant toward extending the streetcar or shift the money toward bus services. The deciding factor is whether the streetcar agency can find the bulk of the $4.3-million to lay the tracks; it also needs a long-term financial operations plan.
The streetcar is fulfilling its mission — bringing visitors to and from Ybor, the cruise ships and shopping at Channelside, Times Forum events and the convention center and nearby hotels. Extending it about three blocks north, to City Hall, would broaden its reach to the Sheraton, Hyatt and the new arts and children's museums and Hixon riverfront park. The streetcar line should run 13 blocks, not three blocks, north. But this would be a good first step. It would not likely change the passenger mix; the streetcar is too infrequent and slow to be an option for work or lunch. But extending it would serve more hotels and major tax-supported entertainment venues.
The streetcar board first needs to prove it can cover its operating costs. The agency is burning through endowment money at the present, but insists it can turn the finances around as ridership increases and a taxing base for operations continues to grow. The city and county need to help the streetcar broaden its revenue base. The city is considering allowing transportation impact fees, charged to new construction, to pay for mass transit instead of roads. The county is examining whether it can use tourist development taxes, a charge on hotel room stays, to subsidize streetcar operations. Those uses are reasonable for a system that moved 440,000 people last year to and from major tourist venues.
The streetcar is no substitute for mass transit in Tampa. But extending it north is the first step toward creating a loop from Ybor through downtown and back to the Latin Quarter. It could be an essential part of a bus and rail system bringing people in and out of the city center. Officials need to help the streetcar board develop its business plan. They also need to be more vocal about the streetcar's value. It serves a niche, but no one can doubt it should be here to stay.