You could rightly call the vintage streetcars that trundle between downtown Tampa and Ybor City big, beautiful boondoggles.
An integral part of this city's unique history?
And in their current incarnation, overpriced, inefficient as a serious commuter option and mostly just tourist kitsch?
But good news at last for a Tampa icon that dates back more than a century and hit its heyday in the 1920s, ferrying residents to Ballast Point, Sulphur Springs and beyond:
Our streetcars just got a shot in the arm.
And a shot at catching up with the burgeoning, dare I even say bustling, city around them.
This week came the welcome headline that a $2.67 million Florida Department of Transportation grant means that come fall, people will be able to ride the 2.7 mile TECO Streetcar Line for free instead of paying $2.50 for a one-way trip.
If you're doing the math, that's five bucks to get from the Marriott Waterside Hotel through Channelside to Ybor for a Cuban sandwich and back — making it particularly unrealistic for downtown workers to use with regularity.
More good news: With this cash infusion, streetcars will come every 15 minutes and run for longer hours, too.
All of which could transform Tampa kitsch into a bona fide transportation option in a city that badly needs as many as it can get.
The trollies have a long and rich history as an essential part of getting around this town before the line shut down after World War II, reopening with more modest service in 2002. Streetcars could get packed for events like Lightning games and Gasparilla but did not exactly take off as serious transit.
In fact, Mayor Bob Buckhorn voted against the trollies back when he was a city council member, predicting the aforementioned boondoggle. He has since said the system has been inadequately financed and poorly run.
Two years ago, in an effort to make the trollies make more sense, a change was made: They got rolling at 7 a.m. instead of lunch time — yes, lunch time — and I got the mayor to take a ride early one workday morning. It did not bode well that the fare machine spat back his dollar bills, that we had to twiddle our thumbs because the trolley only came every half hour, or that we were the only riders.
But in case you hadn't noticed, downtown Tampa is changing. It's building, becoming its next self with the ambitious and sprawling project at its south end, with an already much-used Riverwalk and with an explosion of parks and restaurants around the water and north of the Interstate that was formerly downtown's official border. (Not to get too far ahead of ourselves here, but it sure seems like a great time to make the idea of extending the streetcar line north happen, too.)
This week the mayor actually used the word "thrilled" about the grant and what it could do in this city's current incarnation. "It has become an amenity that makes more sense," he says. "It starts to fit and become a legitimate piece of the puzzle."
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The streetcar's time may just have come.
And hey, this could be Tampa's new motto: We may go slow, but eventually, we go.