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Florida will contribute $67 million to extend Tampa streetcar

The project depends on the Florida Supreme Court approving the 2018 transportation sales tax, or finding a new local funding source.

TAMPA — The TECO Line Streetcar is one step closer to extending north into Tampa Heights after the Florida Department of Transportation announced Tuesday it would contribute $67 million to help build it.

But the $234 million project still has two major hurdles to clear: securing a $100 million federal grant and the Florida Supreme Court giving the green light to Hillsborough County’s transportation sales tax, which would help cover the local share of the cost. Without those two funding sources, the new tracks will remain another transit wish for the region.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor pauses near a pair of renderings of modern streetcars which were displayed Tuesday, Dec. 8 in Tampa.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor pauses near a pair of renderings of modern streetcars which were displayed Tuesday, Dec. 8 in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“If the federal government sees that the state has committed, that helps,” local transportation secretary David Gwynn said. “It makes for a much stronger application.”

The city hopes the updated, extended streetcar will be up and running by the end of 2026, said mobility director Vik Bhide. The city will know in February whether the project qualified for a federal grant this year.

”It certainly helps that FDOT stepped up in such a big way with their state match,” Bhide said.

The goal is to run the streetcar every 10 minutes and connect it with trails, bus service and other modes of transportation.

“Today we are looking at turning the streetcar into a completely valid mass transit system,” Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc. board chair Michael English said.

Related: In Tampa and St. Pete, new riders flock to free downtown transit lines

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said she was certain that Christmas had come early when Gwynn called her with the news of the state grant.

The mayor has made transportation and expanding mass transit a focus of her administration. She said she is still hopeful the Florida Supreme Court will uphold the 2018 transportation sales tax, which would provide enough money for the city and transit authority to provide $67 million for the project.

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board members voted earlier this year to start the evaluation and rating process required for a federal grant application that could pay for more than 40 percent of the project. And the state’s promise of funding announced Tuesday signals the kind of support and local cooperation often heralded in that evaluation.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, left, listens as FDOT District Seven Secretary David Gwynn speaks during a news conference Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 in Tampa.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, left, listens as FDOT District Seven Secretary David Gwynn speaks during a news conference Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The 1.3-mile extension would take the line up to W Palm Avenue, making it possible for urban residents to ride the streetcar downtown for work, dinner or a Tampa Bay Lightning game. The money would also help pay for modernizing the 2.7 miles of existing track, replacing vehicles, constructing a maintenance facility, upgrading existing stations and making adjustments to overhead power supply.

Related: Hillsborough rail, streetcar and ferry projects wait in limbo for Supreme Court tax decision

The streetcar opened in the 1990s and has mostly served as a tourism and entertainment option.

Ridership floundered for much of its lifespan, and the project saw little love in the 2000s from elected officials, including those who now support it.

But ridership increased recently after officials removed the fare, making it free to ride. Development downtown along Channelside and the Riverwalk has also helped bolster its use.

Other midsized cities, such as Cincinnati and Kansas City, have recently spent millions of dollars to bring streetcars to their downtowns and expand their existing transit networks.

Transportation officials have been refining plans for the extension for years. More than two years ago, the Federal Transit Administration approved the project for entry into its Small Starts grant program. A letter sent by Hillsborough’s transit authority in August asked that the project be included in the president’s budget for fiscal year 2022.

Tampa streetcar motorman Jorge Cruz, of Tampa, checks the time while manning a Tampa streetcar Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 in Tampa.
Tampa streetcar motorman Jorge Cruz, of Tampa, checks the time while manning a Tampa streetcar Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

But in order to land that grant, the city of Tampa and the local transit authority have to show they can pay for more than a quarter of the project. That’s only possible from funds collected by the 2018 transportation sales tax, whose fate is in the hands of the state’s highest court, or by establishing a new funding source, such as voters passing a 2022 sales tax referendum.

“The entire HART funding plan is predicated on the sales tax,” interim chief financial officer Cyndy Stiglich said in an email. “There is no plan B at this point for local contribution.”

The sales tax went into effect Jan. 1, 2019, and collected more than $416 million while the case made its way through the court system. Nearly half of that is allocated for the local transit authority.

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