Carlton: Look! It's people! Riding the trolley!

Tampa's charming but troubled trolley got a big boost in ridership when it went fareless. Could this be good for our transportation future?
Could free fares tranform Tampa’s historic streetcar line? [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
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Could free fares tranform Tampa’s historic streetcar line? [OCTAVIO JONES | Times] .
Published April 4

I was driving back downtown the other day after lunch in Ybor City when one of those jaunty historic streetcars trundled past on the tracks.

By now it's a sight I know well: this city's most charming boondoggle driven by what appear to be lonely Maytag repairmen.

But something was different. People were riding — not weekend tourists, not partiers headed to a night parade, but a scattering of actual, regular, workaday-looking folk getting where they needed to go.

Make it free and they will come.

The Times' Caitlin Johnston reported recently that Tampa's TECO Line Streetcar — and also the Downtown Looper bus that circles in St. Petersburg — saw impressive jumps in ridership after both went fareless last fall.

In fact, Tampa's streetcar tripled its passengers numbers, with more than 356,000 riding along the 2.7 mile stretch between October and February — more than have ridden in an entire year in recent years.

Which means fewer cars on the road. And a potential boon for local businesses.

When you are a region struggling with traffic congestion and how to improve how we get around, even something this small — balancing the take at the farebox against getting people to actually ride — is significant.

You know those abstract pictures you have to stare at for a long time before you see an object emerge?

Maybe the big picture here is a more efficient transportation system made up of varied components that slowly start to make sense — from ferries on the water to rail between Tampa and Orlando to mass transit to get us to work and the airport.

And a trolley that, handled right, might even be a part of city life again.

Tampa's trolley goes back more than a century, ferrying citizens south to Ballast Point and north to Sulphur Springs. Former Mayor Dick Greco, now 85, was a little boy sitting next to his grandfather clackety-clacking down those tracks with their fishing poles.

I remember its revival nearly two decades ago, all the fanfare for those bright yellow cars with their gleaming cherry and oak, those thick leather straps to hold onto as it clanged around the curves. Even then people charmed by it — and who wasn't — worried it would be less commuter option than the aforementioned boondoggle.

By 2015, not everyone was interested in its long wait times or ridiculous round trip fare. (As Mayor Bob Buckhorn pointed out, why would you spend $5 to ride the trolley to get a $6 Cuban?) Transit-haters, and they are legion, got to call it under-used and expensive, nothing but a bauble for tourists.

A year later I talked Buckhorn into an early morning workday ride. We talked about inadequate management and funding over the years, and how the trolley could have better been designed as a commuter option. There weren't many takers that morning, but it was a pleasant, easy ride nonetheless.

The trolley's woes are hardly behind us. But when I read those encouraging numbers and saw people riding I thought:

Wouldn't it be nice not to have to get in my car?

Wouldn't it be great if the trolley one day extended north past the edge of downtown and into burgeoning Tampa Heights, where they're packing them in for the food halls and the Riverwalk? If citizens had more options like the Downtown Looper in St. Pete?

And if people keep coming up with these creative tweaks to make transportation work?

How interesting, in a place stuck in traffic, if the historic streetcar moves ahead.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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