TAMPA — The bell-clanging car rumbled by plots that once held cigar factories but now were glossy developments, and operator Connie Cosme considered how the city had changed since she first stood behind the controls two decades ago.
“That was an empty lot,” she said from inside Tampa’s streetcar No. 431, 46-feet long and sunshine yellow, pointing at a glass-clad office building. She’s been steering a Tampa streetcar between Ybor and downtown since the route first opened in October 2002.
“That’s new,” Cosme, 57, said. “And so is that.”
Beyond her streetcar windshield stretched a city with one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, and a growing cost of living crisis. A city with big transportation ambitions, in a county long embroiled over how to fund sorely needed infrastructure improvements.For two decades, Cosme’s had a front row seat to downtown Tampa’s metamorphosis.
“Welcome,” she said, waving on visitors and locals, commuters and explorers. Celebrating its 20th birthday this month, the TECO Line Streetcar has evolved from a charming yet oft-disparaged tourist attraction into one of the county’s few reliable public transit options for those lucky enough to benefit from its 2.7-mile footprint.
The route has seen surging ridership since it became free to ride in 2018. Despite not operating three days last month due to Hurricane Ian, the streetcar had its best September yet, carrying more than 75,800 trips.
Cosme turned back to face the windshield and continued along Channelside Drive, passing neighborhoods where she’d looked at apartments she couldn’t afford to rent. Instead, she commutes from Carrollwood, an 11-mile drive north that takes 20 minutes without traffic. Making the journey via public transit would take at least four times as long and require two or three buses.
The city’s population has grown about 24% since the streetcar’s 2002 launch, according to the U.S. Census Bureau data. And almost half a million more people live in Hillsborough County. As the developments have sprouted, transportation infrastructure has failed to keep pace.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has made transportation a focus of her administration, trying to shift a city’s culture which she says views mass transit as “more than two people in an SUV.”
At least 255 people died in traffic crashes in Hillsborough last year, making 2021 the deadliest ever on local roads. The average Tampa driver spends 48 hours a year sitting in rush-hour traffic, making it the 12th worst congested city in the nation. And existing county roads are repaved once every 70 years.
Advocates hope a streetcar expansion could turn the trolley from a trinket into a more useful transit system, propelling the city into an era of safer and less congested streets.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
In July, Tampa’s streetcar was 16th most productive transit system in the country, as measured by the number of passengers per hour, according to Federal Transit Administration data.
“Our streetcar system is the one transit option in our region that’s not just working well, but is surpassing some of the biggest and best systems out there in the nation,” Tampa Mobility Department Director Vik Bhide said.
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 almost 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.
The state funding is earmarked for this financial year, meaning the city has until June 2023 to execute a contract with the Florida Department of Transportation, regional spokesperson Kris Carson said. To do this, the city must show it has sufficient local funds to match the state’s.
If the city can’t get the money in time, it can ask the state to push the funding to a future year, but Carson said there’s no guarantee the state would agree. “Other important projects across the state are also in need of transit funding,” she said.
Hillsborough’s proposed transportation sales tax could provide some funding. But last week, a circuit court judge invalidated the November ballot question, though the county is appealing.
When asked whether the city will be able to produce the match in time, Bhide said: “We don’t know.”
Inside Streetcar 431, Cosme continued on toward downtown, shifting her eyes between the road ahead the rearview mirror that showed the 44 wooden seats behind her.
On hopped medical students, ready for another long day in scrubs. On hopped Michael Duff from Philadelphia, visiting his son, a junior at University of Tampa, and heading to the city’s photography museum. “Almost too good to be true,” he said, learning the ride is free.
On hopped Luke, aged 4, and Jude, 3, who have the day off from school. Their father, Barrett Karish, brought them to Tampa from Pasco County. Earlier they went to the aquarium and later they will go to the zoo, but for now they were awestruck by the rumbling streetcar.
“Does anyone want to toot the whistle?” Cosme asked, and Luke reached for the handle as his brother winced at the loud choo choo.
Cosme is a New Yorker. “I was raised on transit,” she said. She took the bus and subway to school, and was maybe 25 when she got her driver’s license.
She moved to Florida in search of sandals-and-shorts winters. “The bus company is always hiring,” a friend told her. So Cosme joined the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and drove buses for a year before managers plucked her to to be one of the original streetcar operators — a motorman, in streetcar lingo.
Twenty years later, at least five days a week she drives back and forth from Ybor City to downtown, stopping 11 times each way. She was the only woman in the original class and is the only one from the group still working on the line.
Lately, she’s been working six days a week. There are 11 streetcar motormen and five open vacancies. Transit agencies across the country are struggling to rebuild a workforce that was battered by the pandemic. Tampa’s Streetcar operators start at $19.45 per hour, the same as county bus drivers and the highest starting operator pay in the state.
“I love my job but it’s not for everyone,” she said as she steered past the port, where a couple disembarked, heading for a cruise.
She is constantly on her feet, with only a small cushioned stool, wedged beside a no-longer-used farebox, to perch on. The trolley pole, a pull on the outside of the car, has to be yanked by hand every time a car switches direction. She must be alert at all times, ready for a pedestrian wandering close to the tracks or a car ignoring signs that proclaim “Do Not Enter.” Each streetcar avoids four to five accidents daily, she estimates.
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, which operates the streetcar, faces an uncertain financial future. It is projected to hit the red by 2027 without funding from the recently-struck down proposed surtax, according to infrastructure consulting firm InfraStrategies.
Last month, more than half the agency’s routes frequently ran late. None of the bus routes, often lumbering along often traffic-choked streets, were on schedule at least 90% of the time. And the agency reported 60 major mechanical system failures to the National Transit Database during September.
The streetcar comes every 15 minutes and operates until 2 a.m. on weekends. Next year, the cars will run every 12 minutes on weekends. The county transit agency wants to further boost efficiency by increasing signal priorities and preemption to ensure frequency is maintained.
Tampa once boasted a vast streetcar network that stretched more than 50 miles and each year gave a lift to 24 million people. People rode them to work in cigar factories, to shop downtown, to picnic in parks. But the car became king and the streetcars ceased in 1946. Most of the lines were ripped up. In 2002, the streetcar made a comeback.
Midday and Cosme’s streetcar is quiet, a marked difference from Friday and Saturday nights and the hours following a Lightning game, when throngs of fans, win or lose, pile in and the packed cars have to leave trails of people behind when all the standing room is taken.
The yellow car rumbles into Station 1, Ybor City, where a clump of people are ready to board.
“Give me a second,” Cosme said with a smile. “I’m going to turn the seats around and then we’ll be off.” She flips the wooden benches for the fifth time that day and toots the streetcar’s whistle, announcing its readiness to roll once more.