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City will replace people mover

The city's consummate deal maker has struck again.

On Monday morning, Mayor Dick Greco somehow persuaded the owner of the Harbour Island people mover _ that neat-looking tram that nobody rides _ to shut it off, tear it down and hand the city a check for $5-million. The city will invest that money in the anticipated trolley system that will stretch from downtown to Ybor City, including a bus line to Harbour Island.

"The people mover is like a good-looking dog that won't hunt," Mayor Dick Greco said at a news conference Monday. "It never worked and it never will, and the deal we struck today is the best for everybody."

The people mover opened in 1985 and developers hyped it as a futuristic link between downtown and Harbour Island's expected hive of shops and restaurants. The offshore shops never came, though, and neither did people-mover riders.

Now, under the deal Greco brokered, Harbour Island Inc., the owner of the people mover, will abandon its $8-million investment and give the city a good chunk of change.

It might seem like a ludicrous deal, and Matthew Broas, president of Harbour Island, admits that his company considered taking the issue to court before capitulating to city pressure.

"But we have a good working relationship with the city and didn't want a fight," Broas said. "And we wanted to continue providing transportation to our residents."

Actually, Harbour Island is cutting its losses. Under its original development agreement with the city of Tampa, the company is committed to another 15 years of running the people mover. Because of its design that uses a cable and a cushion of air to ferry people over the Garrison Channel, the people mover is pricey to maintain.

At $600,000 per year, plus capital improvements, the city estimated that Harbour Island would sink at least another $15-million into the tram. The operating revenues, usually $20,000 a year, hardly offset this cost.

Greco argued the agreement helps the 2,500 islanders because they will no longer pay annual people mover dues, usually around $85 a house.

It took two years of negotiating before Greco won over executives from Harbour Island, a subsidiary of consumer finance giant Beneficial Corp.

"It's a fair deal," Broas said, "It reflects the reality of the people mover and allows us a fresh start."

That start will be Tampa's new trolley system. Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority will begin in the next few months by running lemon-colored buses that look like trolleys from the north Franklin Street area to Harbour Island. The buses cost $360,000 each, and so far HARTline has bought two and plans to purchase four more.

By December 1999, the city will open a rail line with old-fashioned streetcars from Ybor to the upcoming convention center hotel, expected to open in the same month. There will be 11 stops along the way. For pocket change (the exact amount hasn't been determined yet), tourists and locals alike will be able to jump aboard from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.

The second stage of the project will be sinking rails into Franklin Street and phasing out the yellow trolley-buses in favor of genuine streetcars.

State and federal grants will finance construction of the $20-million system. The catch, Greco explained, was finding a way to pay for the $1.2-million annual operating costs. The $5-million from Harbour Island was key.

Under Greco's plan, the city will pay $1-million to take down the people mover and use the balance to start a trolley trust fund. The city will generate another $3-million to $4-million for the trust fund, Greco hopes, by selling naming rights for streetcars and trolley stations to local corporations.

At $8-million, the trust fund would generate about $300,000 each year in interest. Add that to fare box revenues and possibly a small tax on businesses along the trolley corridor and the system should be self-sufficient, Greco said.

As for the people mover, the city won't tear it down until the new trolley system is in place. Greco, who loves thinking big, even has ideas for the soon to be defunct bridge in the Garrison Channel.

"We could put sculptures on top of the pilings and light them up at night," Greco said with a boyish grin. "It would look great, huh?"