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Tampa to spend $560,000 on free electric shuttles for downtown

TAMPA — Once they were popular. Then they were regulated out of existence. Now free electric shuttles will soon return to downtown Tampa.

The City Council on Thursday approved spending $560,000 for a demonstration project to create a free electric shuttle service to provide short trips for downtown workers, residents and visitors.

"The intention is to keep people from using their car just to get from one side of our downtown to another," said Christine Burdick, president of the nonprofit Tampa Downtown Partnership, which put together a plan for the shuttles. "We can help alleviate the multiple car trips through downtown."

The shuttle could begin in mid to late summer, Burdick said. Plans call for using nine low-speed electric vehicles that can carry up to six passengers each. At least four will be in use at a time.

The partnership estimates the free shuttles will draw about 860 riders a day, or nearly 26,000 a month. They will run 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends. Riders will be able to hail the shuttle drivers or arrange for a ride through an app.

Providing rides from remote parking lots and transit stops will be a priority. That's because one thing downtown needs, Burdick said, is a way to help commuters bridge the last mile on their trip from home to work.

The partnership plans to buy or lease the vehicles and hire the Downtowner, a company that runs similar shuttles in three other Florida cities, to operate the program.

Tampa's funds for the shuttle will come from the community redevelopment areas for downtown and the Channel District. Inside those CRAs, property taxes generated by new growth are channeled into public projects to support further growth. The downtown CRA will put in $440,000, with the remaining $120,000 coming from the Channel District CRA.

"It's a significant amount of money, but it's also a step forward for our urban areas," Tampa economic opportunity administrator Bob McDonaugh told the council.

Other funds are coming from the partnership, private sponsorships, the federal government and the Florida Department of Transportation, which has pledged $150,000 for three years.

Tampa's $560,000 represents an annual contribution to the service. But Burdick said the partnership is not looking to run the service for more than a couple of years. After that, she said, organizers hope that the private sector sees an opportunity and works with regulators to re-enter the market on agreed-upon terms.

Four private companies provided a similar shuttle service until 2010, when the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission put them out of business after complaints from taxicab companies that they were unsafe and a source of unregulated competition.

Unlike the old privately run services, some of which carried passengers as far as Ybor City and Hyde Park, the downtown partnership's new service will stick to downtown, the Channel District, Harbour Island and the area around the University of Tampa.

The partnership outlined its plans to the PTC, Burdick said, and commission members have indicated they would not oppose the pilot project.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the shuttle is designed for short hops, such as from the Hilton Tampa Downtown to Harbour Island. It's not meant to cut into the cabbies' more lucrative business of, for example, taking visitors between downtown hotels and Tampa International Airport.

"It's a recognition that we need options," Buckhorn said.

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.

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