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Transit Authority board will keep running rail system

Since the streetcar link between Ybor City and the Channel District debuted in 2002, critics have railed that it diverts money from providing bus service in Hillsborough County.

County Commissioners Brian Blair and Ronda Storms support this view, and they seemed to have scored a blow in January when they persuaded the county's transit agency to back away from operating the 2.4-mile rail system.

But Tuesday, the bus agency reversed course. By a 6-1 vote, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board decided it will continue to operate the system after all.

"I've since learned a lot," said HARTline board member Ed Giunta, who voted in January to let private companies compete for the operations job. "It's clear that there would be an increased cost."

"It's obvious putting this out to bid would not be a good decision," said Commissioner Kathy Castor, who sits on the HARTline board with Blair and Storms. "Privatization sounds like a good idea, but it doesn't work out."

HARTline executive director Ray Miller explained that regardless of who operates the system, the transit agency was still responsible for the equipment and the garage that holds the 10 streetcars. Hiring another operator would complicate maintenance of the system, he said.

"We can't flick a switch and say good night and good luck," Miller said. "There will be a cost incurred with a third-party operator."

HARTline operates the $53-million system for Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc., the nonprofit organization responsible for it.

HARTline charged the nonprofit $1.6-million in operating expenses last year. It doesn't make or lose money because it reimburses exactly what it costs in salaries and maintenance to operate the system, HARTline officials say.

But for Storms and Blair, the streetcars are fanciful distractions from a real need to invest in bus service to the suburbs. When Blair left the meeting early, Storms argued for the both of them that HARTline should no longer operate the streetcar.

"Don't be wooed that government can do better," Storms said. "Believe in our capitalistic system."

She claimed that streetcars are transportation options for the well-to-do and tourists. She questioned whether streetcars helped revive downtrodden areas. If they did, she asked, why not introduce them to areas like East Tampa rather than the Channel District?

"Let's get out of this altogether so we can go out and operate buses," she said. "Buses should be our first priority."

She sparred mostly with City Council member John Dingfelder in a number of exchanges. Dingfelder said Storms was misleading people by saying that county money is spent on the streetcar, when, he said, it was paid for entirely by passenger fares, state and federal grants and private contributions.

"Doesn't anything that benefits the city benefit the county?" he asked Storms. "Last time I looked, the city was the county seat."