TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn has vowed to save downtown's struggling streetcar — once again.
If that sounds familiar, it's because the mayor also vowed to save it back in 2012. But downtown's underused, underfunded trolley system remains in distress.
But this time, the mayor said, he really means it.
"I'm happy to take ownership of this," Buckhorn said, "because I do think we need to resolve this."
Buckhorn's latest vow was made during Tuesday's Tampa Port Authority board meeting, in the very same room where he first vowed — two years, four months and three days ago — to save the trolley.
Back then, he convinced his fellow board members to continue a $100,000 subsidy to the streetcar. Their patience has since worn thin. The port hasn't paid the streetcar anything since 2012. In October 2014, the board balked at giving the trolley any money until its operator, the nonprofit Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc., came up with a turnaround plan.
The port was pulled back into the streetcar drama on Tuesday when port board member and Hillsborough County Commission Chairwoman Sandra Murman asked port staff to bring the main stakeholders together to start addressing the issue.
"We are a partner in this," she said. "Somebody's got to take the lead."
But once again her fellow board members resisted.
"I want our staff to take care of maritime matters," said port board chairman Stephen Swindal. "This is a land-borne transportation system that we have nothing to do with."
"It runs right through port property," Murman said.
"I want to be a partner," Swindal said, "but I don't want to be lead."
That's when the mayor stepped in.
Why would this vow be different than his last one? Two words: Jeff Vinik. The Tampa Bay Lightning owner plans a $1 billion redevelopment of downtown. A revitalized streetcar could add mass transit to that plan.
"Now is the time to get it done," Buckhorn said.
The reason he didn't act in 2012, the mayor said, was because he's had a lot on his plate: "It just hasn't been at the top of my list of priorities."
Buckhorn already has a solution in mind: the streetcar's volunteer board — which runs the trolley along with the city and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority — needs to be disbanded.
The streetcar must be run by one entity, the mayor said, and it needs a seven-figure infusion of cash to get it running more frequently and for free. The first step in that process likely will be funding a study of the streetcar, its ridership, the cost and benefits of increasing service and perhaps even expanding it with federal dollars.
Buckhorn said the city would bring the streetcar board, HART, the county and the neighborhood community redevelopment agencies together to start the discussion.
Fixing the streetcar will be a daunting task, the mayor said, especially securing the extra $1 million a year he said it could cost to get the trolley running more often so that more people will use it.
"My mother always said I had way more courage than brains," Buckhorn said.
Contact Jamal Thalji at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.