Could a streetcar linking Tampa with the airport open by 2026?

Plenary Americas US Holdings Inc. proposed partnering with the city to build a transit line primarily along Cypress Street.
A sleek streetcar moving through downtown Tampa adorns the cover of a proposal to build a line to the airport.
A sleek streetcar moving through downtown Tampa adorns the cover of a proposal to build a line to the airport. [ City of Tampa ]
Published Dec. 18, 2020|Updated Dec. 18, 2020

TAMPA — A streetcar connecting Tampa International Airport, downtown and Ybor City could be up and running by 2026, according to a private company that wants to partner with city officials to build it.

Dubbed the CrossTampa Transit Connector, the proposed 8.25-mile line would run along Cypress Street for most of the route. It would stop at 18 stations, at least two of which are expected to be fully enclosed hubs that would include commercial and retail space.

But many key of the details are still to be determined — including whether the city wants to pursue the project at all.

Plenary Americas US Holdings Inc., a public-infrastructure developer and investor, pitched the idea earlier this year.

Local leaders and transit officials have long called for a way to connect some of the area’s key activity centers, including the airport, West Shore area and downtown. Time and again, those projects have stalled — often stymied by lack of money.

The proposed transit line could cost $700 million to build, most of which would need to be paid for with local and state governments. That means supporters of this project, like so many others in Tampa right now, are left waiting to see if the Florida Supreme Court upholds a 2018 transportation sales tax that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars a year for transit.

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

A 294-page proposal from Plenary identified modern streetcar as one of the strongest options for the project. But everything, such as what type of transit mode will be used, is up in the air.

“The ball is in our court,” said Vik Bhide, mobility department director for the city of Tampa.

Staff will review the proposal over the next month or two and bring a recommendation before city council. If elected officials want to move forward, they would enter an interim agreement where more details, like how to pay for it, would be explored. After that, council would have to vote again on whether to build it.

Other potential options for the route are light rail, an automated people mover (like the one at Tampa International Airport) or group rapid transit. The last is a less common term which refers to a driverless, fully-autonomous shuttle that doesn’t require tracks and operates at a max of 40 mph. The cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg are currently running pilots of the driverless shuttles in their downtown corridors.

Related: St. Pete launches driverless shuttle along Bayshore Drive

Plenary Vice President Mike Schutt declined to comment on the project while the city was still evaluating the proposal.

The route would aim to connect with other transit options in Tampa, including the TECO Line Streetcar, local buses and other projects that might come in the future. The proposal suggests offering express service for quicker trips to the airport, in addition to regular service where the line stops every half a mile or so.

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Nearly five years ago, the state of Florida bought the land where Charley’s Steakhouse and the Doubletree by Hilton Tampa Airport currently stand in hopes of one day turning it into a transportation hub for rail and buses. But plans for expanded transit options in the area have stalled repeatedly, and the state has made no further moves to develop the transit center.

Related: FDOT buys land for future transportation hub in Tampa's busy West Shore area

Plenary proposes the project would cost anywhere from $450-700 million to build. It would then be an additional $10-13 million to operate and maintain each year.

But unlike other public-private partnerships, such as Brightline’s high speed rail line, this is not a scenario where a company is offering to invest hundreds of millions. Instead, local and state governments would be responsible for most of the bill.

“This is a private company stepping forward saying, ‘We think we can build this project faster if you, the government, give us the money to do it,’” said Rick Homans, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership, which has long advocated for transit in the region.

“I think that’s certainly worth looking at, but the big issue certainly remains: Where’s the money?”

Related: Florida will contribute $67 million to extend Tampa streetcar

Chalk this up as another project whose future depends on whether the Florida Supreme Court upholds a one-cent transportation sales tax voters approved two years ago.

“It is frustrating to have news about transportation constantly with a caveat,” said Christina Barker, a co-founder of All for Transportation, the advocacy group that helped pass the referendum. “There’s always an asterisk next to it.”

The state’s highest court releases opinions every Thursday. But there’s no knowing which week the ruling might drop.

Until then, Barker said it’s reassuring to see the city, county and local transportation agencies continuing to move forward with plans and pursue options.

“We’re not standing still,” Barker said. “There is progress being made. It’s just going to make these things happen faster when the funding becomes available.”