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Will gas tax sustain idea born of trolley nostalgia?

Nat Davis remembers crackling wires, the ding-ding-ding of a big bell and the sprint to catch a trolley on his way to school. At 57 years old, Davis doesn't think he could beat an electric streetcar to the corner anymore. Still, he would love to see them rolling again.

"Just hearing the sound of that streetcar used to get us all excited," said Davis, who paid a nickel 50 years ago to ride trolleys in east Tampa. "They were neat, and we felt a little down when the trolleys went away."

This week the City Council might take the first step toward bringing the trolleys back. A long-touted project whose hopes have peaked and plummeted almost as often as deals for a convention center hotel, the trolley system would rumble from Ybor City to downtown, stopping along the way at tourist destinations such as the Ice Palace and the Florida Aquarium.

The City Council on Thursday will decide whether to use gas tax funds to help pay $630,000 for the first stages of the project, which include soil testing and drafting blueprints. Yet not everyone in Tampa, especially City Council member Bob Buckhorn, believes that money will be well spent.

"How can I go to neighborhoods without sidewalks and say we need a trolley that may or may not work?" Buckhorn asked. "This project is all about emotions. There are people who live and die trolleys, but taxpayers shouldn't be financing their hobby."

Trolley enthusiasts counter that streetcars will benefit the whole city. Trolleys will attract tourists and help local businesses and future projects such as a 26-story hotel Marriott has promised to build near the convention center. And for anybody who travels from downtown to Ybor _ for a drink, for lunch, after a hockey game _ the streetcar rails will be the missing link.

"We have a bunch of pearls in this city," said Sharon Dent, executive director of HARTline. "Now we need a string to hold them together."

If officials give the green light and there are no complications, trolley construction could begin next year. Electric cars could roll by December 1999, when the convention center hotel is supposed to open. Building the trolley would cost nearly $19-million and would be financed by a mix of federal and state grants, gas tax revenue and HARTline funds. The trolley would feature eight cars, similar to the old-fashioned ones in San Francisco and New Orleans, that cruise between 8 and 15 mph.

As for keeping the system afloat, the 50-cent fare is expected to pay one-fourth of annual operating costs, estimated between $700,000 and $1-million. The balance would come from private donations and special new taxes on businesses along rail lines.

Trolley fans promise that stores and restaurants will blossom along the trolley route like towns popping up along the Oregon Trail.

"In it's own humble way, the trolley will stimulate a lot of business," says urban planner Michael English.

English, like many others, also is excited about the trolley for reasons that Buckhorn criticizes as emotional. In the early 20th century, Ybor City flourished under an extensive trolley network. Though the streetcars stopped running in 1946 and the rails were buried under asphalt, trolley affection has never died.

"The trolley has always been a core value in our community," English said. "This new project will connect us to our past."

Buckhorn doesn't buy it. He was an aide to former Mayor Sandy Freedman, who received the trolley idea far more coolly than Mayor Dick Greco, who has promoted it. The only money that should be spent on trolleys right now, Buckhorn says, is for a ridership study. He doesn't accept HARTline's preliminary analysis, which projected 264,000 riders in the trolley's first year.

"Projections are an inexact science, as we all know from the aquarium," Buckhorn said, referring to attendance that fell far short of expectations. "My instincts are to vote against the trolley, unless someone shows me some more studies."

That's not likely. The forces driving the trolley project say the issue has been studied to death.

"The trolley will work," said Robert Hunter, executive director of the Hillsborough County Planning Commission. "It's time we stopped thinking about it and put the rails in the ground."