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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Free rides will serve as a test of whether the streetcar is serious transportation

Published Jun. 15, 2018

Who wouldn't jump at the chance to ride for free?

This fall, the TECO Streetcar Line eliminates its $2.50-a-ride-fare, providing the best opportunity yet to see whether the system's vintage streetcar replicas can serve as a legitimate transportation alternative. Today, as quaint as they are, they amount to little more than an under-used "A" ticket novelty ride for tourists.

If people climb aboard the streetcars finally, there's hope for the future of the existing 2.7 mile line — through far-south downtown, Channelside Drive and Ybor City — and hope for an extension and modernization that's under study to reach as far as Tampa Heights.

What could be better than free? Maybe "more often," and that's coming, too — a longer service day plus a streetcar stop every 15 minutes at the 11 stations along the way. The combination should be appealing to potential riders.

But it's no slam dunk.

Riders already have access to two free services offering rides through a much broader swath of downtown — the app-based Downtowner shuttle and the In-Towner rubber-wheeled trolley.

The Downtowner, offering individual point-to-point service, has proven a big hit during a demonstration period and soon will shift from control by the Tampa Downtown Partnership to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. The In-Towner, on the other hand, is going away, its city subsidy shifting to help pay for the free streetcar rides. Even after elimination of a 25-cent fare, the In-Towner could never attract riders along its fixed route.

It's the right time to roll the dice on free streetcar rides. The Downtown Partnership reported in 2016 that downtown's population had doubled in eight years to more than 8,100 people in 5,700 apartments or condominiums. And the numbers are only rising with a burst of residential construction in Ybor City, along Channelside, and soon to include the $3 billion Water Street project right next to the streetcar track.

Meantime, waiting lists for downtown parking spots are getting longer and longer.

Of course, the state and federal governments are staking Tampa to this gamble. The free rides are made possible by a $2.67 million grant from the state Department of Transportation, which was announced last week. And the state already is paying for the bulk of a $1.67 million study on extending the streetcar line, in hopes Tampa can use it to secure some of the $2.3 billion that the Federal Transit Administration doles out each year for capital projects.

This is as it should be. Even the most heavily used mass transit operations rely on federal funding, as do many major highway projects. For taxpayers, the reward for mass transit investment comes in reduced congestion, cleaner air and economic development from the businesses that spring up where riders board.

But now that free rides are coming, making a convincing case to invest more public money in the streetcar will almost require that more people take advantage of the opportunity. The state grant covers three years. Free rides forever, and more of them, are not a sustainable business plan.

Getting more people to climb on board during this period will require some effective promotion by HART, the streetcar operator, as well as the city of Tampa. Past attempts have included spreading the word when service was extended to weekday mornings, when performers are hired to play concerts on board, and when the streetcar offers a link between Ybor City's parking garages and big events downtown.

But even the city of Tampa's streetcar web page acknowledges that day to day, it's tourists who dominate a dwindling ridership.

Perhaps the sales pitch should emphasize all the places the streetcar puts you on now, from the Tampa Convention Center at the Whiting Street Station, along Old Water Street past Amalie Arena and the Tampa History Center, through a Channelside area now in transition, and all the major attractions of the historic Latin Quarter that is Ybor City. Find new ways to partner with those attractions on luring locals with package deals. Do more in a parking-challenged downtown to pitch the Ybor City garages.

And by all means, reach out to all those people moving in, for whom stepping out the front door and onto a streetcar is becoming a real transportation option.

As one Channel District resident said last year, during a meeting on streetcar expansion, "For most of our residents to get on it, it's got to be frequent, and it's got to be cool."

Check, and check. Now it's time to let people know.

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