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Tampa racing time to have trolley ready for big game

The scramble is on to complete part of the Historic Streetcar line in Ybor City by the time the city hosts the Super Bowl next year.

Will visitors in Tampa for next year's Super Bowl get a chance to ride the much-heralded electric trolley?

Engineers and administrators are working to get everything in place for a short stretch of the Historic Streetcar line in Ybor City to open before out-of-town VIPs and hordes of reporters arrive for the Super Bowl on Jan. 28. A lot of pieces must fall into place.

The city has to find a contractor who will commit to building the track that quickly. A non-profit group that will own the trolley must find someone capable of running it. The City Council must set up an assessment district for businesses to help pay for operations.

"It's a possibility," said Fernando Noriega, the city's development administrator. "We'd love to see a portion of it working by them. It would be real good exposure."

When the City Council approved Tampa's $5-million share of the $24-million project in June 1998, the trolley line connecting the Tampa Convention Center and Ybor City was supposed to be completed early this year.

Engineers had to draw new alignments as projects such as the Tampa Marriott Waterside hotel, Centro Ybor entertainment center and Tampa Port Authority headquarters popped up along the 2.3-mile route, said Elton Smith, the city's transportation manager.

"The trolley was conceived of to promote these kinds of projects," he said. "But before we're even open, they're here."

The line was moved from the south side of Ice Palace Drive to the north side when engineers determined they couldn't squeeze it next to the Marriott, Smith said.

In the middle of negotiations with Tampa Bay Lightning owners over donating land for the track, he said, the team was sold and its new owners were too busy with other matters to close the deal.

Plans called for using an old building at the city's 12th Street maintenance yard to store and repair the trolleys. But Mayor Dick Greco decided to sell the site, so the city must now build a new maintenance barn _ to historic district architectural standards _ in Ybor City.

Engineers scrutinized designs for a bridge over Eighth Avenue connecting Centro Ybor's movie theaters with the rest of the restaurant/retail complex. They wanted to make sure the 600-volt overhead line powering the trolley would fit safely underneath. It will.

The city will negotiate with bidders interested in building the tracks if they can get the Ybor stretch done in time for the Super Bowl, Smith said.

Even if a contractor agrees, he said, unseen circumstances could hold up the project.

No one knows what crews will find while digging up old streets in Ybor or whether they will get stalled trying to work around construction at Centro Ybor or the other entertainment complex underway in the area, Channelside at Garrison Seaport Center.

But there are some positive signs.

The first of eight air-conditioned trolley cars is to arrive this month from an Iowa plant, said city project manager Thomas Capell. Crews poured the first reinforced concrete pads with notches for the rails at Channelside.

City officials should know in two months whether visitors might be riding a trolley in Ybor by Super Bowl weekend, Smith said. Boosters hope the entire line could be operating by the end of next year.

"One of the reasons for building the street car is that it's a marquee project," he said. "They'll look very much like the original street cars that used to run in Tampa."

_ Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384, or at huettelsptimes.com.

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