Here’s something you would probably not have seen a few years ago when Tampa’s historic streetcar was considered a charming boondoggle, sometimes trundling by with nary a passenger:
These days, lines of people sometimes wait to board the jaunty trolleys that travel the 2.7 miles of track back and forth between Ybor City and a fast-developing downtown.
In March, the once-beleaguered TECO Line Streetcar system boasted record modern-day ridership of 108,000 passengers — more than three times as many as in March 2018. People queue up to catch the bell-clanging cars near new high-rise residences and hotels, grocery stores and restaurants, the Florida Aquarium and Sparkman Wharf — and not just on nights when the Lightning packed them in at Amalie Arena along its route.
“Yesterday, I had three trips of people standing,” Connie Cosme, a veteran streetcar senior motorman, said recently. And on weekends, they can get so busy “we leave people behind at stations,” she said.
Now, city boosters are envisioning the streetcar as a more serious transit option that will travel deeper into downtown and beyond, with faster, modernized cars and room for more riders.
“Over the next 20 years we’re going to have 700,000 new residents. That’s almost the populations of Orlando and Miami combined,” said Vik Bhide, director of the city’s mobility department. “It makes more sense to have a transit or a walk-bike or an active transportation-based system.
“The streetcar is a great start to that,” he said.
Tampa’s original streetcar helped build the city around it.
The first line connected what’s now downtown with Ybor City in 1886 in one of the city’s early Anglo-Spanish partnerships, said the Tampa Bay History Center’s Rodney Kite-Powell. The streetcar started out steam-powered but quickly switched to electric.
Streetcars rolled down Bayshore Boulevard, over to West Tampa and north to Sulphur Springs. People rode them to work in cigar factories, to shop downtown, to picnic in parks. The streetcars hit their heyday in the 1920s but were dealt a death blow when World War II ended and cars and buses became the way to get around.
In 2002, the streetcar made a comeback, though it was a rocky road. Ridership plummeted from 426,000 in 2004 to 278,000 in 2015. It was largely used by tourists.
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Tampa has not historically had a good track record when it comes to transit options.
“I always joke that mass transit in Tampa is more than two people in an SUV,” Mayor Jane Castor recently told the Tampa Bay Times.
A 1% sales tax for transportation that Hillsborough County voters approved in 2018 with 57% of the vote was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court. The challenge came from Commissioner Stacy White, who said it was unconstitutional because how the money would be spent was not determined by elected public officials.
A new proposed 1% sales tax for transportation is on the November ballot — something transit boosters are closely watching.
So what contributed to the streetcar’s current boom?
In 2015, a single-ride fare was $2.50, so the cost for a family of four to get to a destination and back was an arguably pricey $20. But since 2018, riding it has been free. The streetcar comes every 15 minutes and operates until 2 a.m. on weekends.
Another big factor: the current growth in Tampa’s urban core. Tourism and the tech scene have also boomed, said Bhide.
“Across the nation, wherever you see highly-skilled workers, particularly Gen Z and millennials, what they’re looking for is a different type of urban environment,” he said. “They prefer options other than a personal vehicle, like transit and walk-bike.”
While the streetcar remains a draw for hop-on, hop-off visitors, Bhide said the city is seeing encouraging “multi-usages” as the population grows. The Channel District neighborhood along the east edge of downtown had about 500 residents 13 years ago and is projected to hit more than 5,000 given the current growth, he said.
“Our streetcar has gone from a tourist attraction to a viable form” of transportation, Castor said. “Individuals living in Ybor or downtown are using it to traverse from work to home and for entertainment.”
Also: “We’re seeing people like service workers, construction workers,” Bhide said. “It’s cheaper to park farther away and then take the streetcar to their places of work.”
“We want all of those things,” he said.
Next up, boosters hope to extend the route north beyond downtown and Interstate 275 into Tampa Heights to link more neighborhoods to downtown. From there, the streetcar will connect to the bus system, Bhide said.
“The humble bus will have to be the backbone” of our transit system, he said.
In 2020, the city got $67 million from the state toward the $234 million price tag for extending and modernizing the streetcar. A significant chunk of the remainder of that funding is expected to come from the federal government. The rest “would have to come from a local source,” Bhide said. And local money needs to be available before federal funds can come through, he said.
“Our plan is to retain some of the historic streetcars should we go the modernization route,” Bhide said. “There is the nostalgia effect. Some of them are just outright fun — like on a cool fall day, you really want to sit in the Breezer (open-air car) rather than a shell that’s air-conditioned.”
The current fleet of 10 cars, operated and maintained by the county’s mass transit agency, HART, includes an original streetcar called the Birney that ran on Tampa tracks from 1923 to 1946. It was salvaged nearly a half century later from a Sulphur Springs backyard where it had been used as an apartment and later a storage shed. There’s also the open-air Breezer car, plus replica cars complete with gleaming wood and polished brass.
Planners are committed to keeping the streetcar free, Bhide said.
Tatiana Morales, a 26-year-old manager for a canvassing organization and North Tampa resident, is a fan.
“I absolutely adore the streetcar,” she said. “Going on the streetcar has helped me understand the layout and the roots of the city so much better. I try to dump my car and ride it and explore.”
Morales would love to see the system bigger and more connected to neighborhoods “like it used to be.”
“If Tampa really leaned in, we could be an amazing city,” she said.