Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was right to press his case to save the downtown streetcar. The electric trolley has a pivotal role to play in developing the Channel District and the city center. But it needs a better business model and the steady support of local agencies to have a chance.
The Port of Tampa was on the verge of yanking its $100,000 yearly subsidy for the trolley Tuesday when Buckhorn implored his colleagues on the governing board to "figure out how to make this work." Starving the trolley for cash, the mayor said, would only lead to more service cuts and could hasten the day when local officials faced scuttling the trolley altogether. That could put the community on the hook for repaying tens of millions in federal construction dollars.
The mayor made the right pitch, though it is troubling that the port board has needed to be goaded for years to recognize the trolley as a critical asset. The port owns the land under the Channelside Bay Plaza retail and entertainment complex — a destination on the streetcar line — and the trolley is an attractive vehicle for bringing paying customers to the port and the nearby facilities. The subsidy is a wise investment and a small price for the port in exchange for the $11 million it collects annually in dedicated property tax revenue from Hillsborough County residents.
Buckhorn's move Tuesday was notable not only for sparing the streetcar from losing much-needed cash, but he promised to help turn around the operation — bringing new blood to the streetcar's governing board and devising a new business plan. The mayor would operate the trolley much more frequently — minutes apart instead of the current 20-minute intervals — and for longer periods than the current afternoon and evening hours. He said an ideal system would operate for free, dispensing with fares that run up to $2.50 for a one-way trip. The added convenience would draw more local residents and visitors alike, help circulate more foot traffic in Ybor City, the Channel District and downtown, and help create business opportunities that would continue the growth of the waterfront area.
The port authority needs to recognize the trolley as a development tool, and it should work with the mayor to stabilize the funding and better market the operation. The trolley is ultimately not the port's responsibility, but the port has an obligation as a major player in the district to take a broad view of what's best for downtown. The mayor appropriately balanced his appeal for the subsidy with a much-needed pledge to recast the trolley's business side. This could be the start of a new era for the trolley and for downtown if other officials take the same practical course.