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Trolley system missing a plan

A proposed trolley system linking Tampa's diverse Ybor City and West Shore areas with the downtown convention center seems to have all the elements for success. There's an impressive list of state and federal grants, an innovative alternative fuel system and much support from businesses along the proposed routes.

But Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HARTline) officials say the trolley proposal still is missing one ingredient: a specific financial and operating plan.

"We still haven't received the kind of specific information we asked for," Sharon Dent, HARTline executive director, said Monday.

The trolley plan is designed to support Tampa's urban centers while decreasing traffic congestion. The plan's main supporters are the Westshore Alliance and the Ybor City Development Corp.

But the two organizations need the support of HARTline, which would receive the government grants and pass the money along to a private group that would run the trolley system.

"The (HARTline) board has made it very clear that they're willing to pass the money through, but only if they are presented with a very strong proposal," Dent said.

Ron Rotella, executive director of Westshore Alliance, said the specific provisions were outlined in a grant proposal that was sent to several agencies, including HARTline.

Organizers will present the formal proposal at HARTline's next

board meeting June 27, he said.

Rebecca Chittum, executive director for Ybor City Development Corporation, said she believes HARTline will agree to the proposal. If all goes well June 27, she said 10 trolley cars could be running within a year.

The proposal includes three trolley routes:

A lunchtime shuttle transporting workers from significant West Shore office concentrations to West Shore Plaza and food court areas.

A shuttle connecting the Tampa Convention Center with Ybor City.

A shuttle connecting West Shore hotels with the downtown convention center.

The Governor's Energy Office has agreed to contribute $250,000 during the next two years, and the Florida Department of Transportation tentatively has committed $611,000 during the next four years. If HARTline accepts the proposal, it has agreed to apply for Urban Mass Transit Administration financing to purchase the trolleys.

The trolley cars would run on compressed natural gas, an innovative alternative fuel that is less expensive and more environmentally safe than gasoline, said Keith Gruetzmacher, manager of natural gas vehicles for Peoples Gas Systems Inc.

Peoples Gas has agreed to convert some of the trolley cars and provide a compressed natural gas refueling station for the vehicles.

Dent said the board is concerned that the proposal is supported by too much public money up front, and not enough private money to constitute a "strong public/private combination."

But Rotella said private organizations such as the Alliance are the driving force behind the initiative.

He also cited private-sector assistance from Peoples Gas and possible subsidies from businesses along the trolley routes. Chittum said more than 25 businesses have sent letters expressing interest in the trolley proposal.