TAMPA — The sunshine-yellow streetcars that rumble between downtown Tampa and Ybor City have evolved from an oft-disparaged tourist attraction into one of the region’s few reliable public transit options for those lucky enough to benefit from their 2.7-mile footprint.
Free to ride for about five years, the line welcomed more riders last month than any in its modern history.
But the route’s fare-free status hangs in the balance.
The TECO Line Streetcar, owned by the city of Tampa and operated by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, may resume charging fares if a pending application to the state proves unsuccessful.
“We’ve all known that this day was coming when the state grant would run out,” Justin Willits, director of planning and scheduling for Hillsborough’s transit agency, told the Tampa Bay Times. “Our contingency plan is to try to reduce the cost of our services but also, maybe, reimplement a fare.”
Reducing operational costs could involve increasing wait times from 12-15 minutes to 20 minutes, he said.
Hillsborough’s transit agency — facing a “dire financial situation,” according to interim CEO Scott Drainville — is running out of money to provide the current service free to passengers.
The agency has relied on a state subsidy to keep the streetcar service free since 2018, with a $2.7 million grant from the Florida Department of Transportation. Since 2021, the department has contributed another $700,000 annually to maintain the fare-free status, alongside Community Redevelopment Areas and the city of Tampa providing a 50% match. Now, that grant is coming to an end.
The agency awaits a response to a grant application submitted to the department in June.
“We are currently working with HART staff to make some necessary changes to the application,” regional department spokesperson Kris Carson said in a statement. “We will consider the application for funding along with other grant applications that we have received.”
To keep the streetcar fare-free long term, Carson added, Tampa “will need to find a continuing funding source.”
Willits said if the grant application falls through, the earliest riders could see fares is late this year or early next year.
Before the state subsidy began, streetcar fares were $2.50 one way or $5 for a day pass. At least 75% of current riders would still use the service if there was a fare, according to a Tampa Downtown Partnership survey.
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This June and July, over 316,000 riders used the service. That’s 14,000 more than in all of 2018 — the year the service became free to ride, Oct. 7.
Earlier this month, Mayor Jane Castor unveiled her $1.92 billion 2024 budget proposal, which includes the city’s first property tax rate increase in five years. The budget includes “historic investment” in city infrastructure, she said, including sidewalk maintenance, street repaving and the replacement of traffic signs — but not for the streetcar.
“My preference is to make all transit free,” Castor recently told the Times.
When asked Monday afternoon why, then, the mayor’s proposed budget did not include funding for the streetcar, city communications director Adam Smith said staff were not available to provide an answer by deadline. But, he added, the mayor wants the service to remain free to ride.
In Hillsborough County and communities across the country, one-time federal cash injections during the pandemic are running out, leaving transit agencies facing a rocky road ahead.
“Your COVID relief funds will be spent down sooner than we’d been assuming,” Amanda Vandegrift of InfraStrategies, a management consulting firm hired to conduct a deep dive into the Hillsborough transit agency’s financial strategy, told board members earlier this year.
In fiscal year 2023, the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area contributed $270,000 to the streetcar, the Channel District CRA gave $265,000, and the Ybor City CRA gave $225,000. HART expects to receive a total of $1.35 million from local governments for the streetcar this year, Juston Lafler, director of budgets and grants at Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, said at the agency’s Monday board meeting.
Beyond fares, the streetcar’s route also faces an uncertain future.
In December 2020, the streetcar secured a $67.3 million grant from the Florida Department of Transportation — the most for any transit project in the region’s history. But more than two years later, the city has been unable to produce the local match needed to secure the state funding to help modernize the streetcar and extend the line north into Tampa Heights.
That money is still sitting untouched, waiting for Tampa to show it has sufficient local funds to match the state’s.
The state’s department of transportation has agreed to defer the money for another year, giving Castor’s administration until next summer to provide a local funding match.