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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Tampa streetcar study a worthwhile undertaking but bumps lie along the road

Published Apr. 7, 2017

Whether or not it leads to the development of a modern Tampa streetcar system, something important is going on with a $1.6 million study now under way on whether it's a good idea. You can see this in the meetings held to gather public input, including one Tuesday at the Tampa Bay History Center.

The audience of some 70 participants was presented maps showing seven broad route proposals and asked to choose favorites using their smart phones. The options provided a glimpse into the future of Tampa's downtown and surrounding areas, its "city center."

One swath follows the existing vintage street car line from Ybor City into the Channel District; two others run north-to-south along either a western or central route; three cross horizontally through a north, central or southern path; and one swoops diagonally from north Ybor City southwest to Hyde Park.

A key question in the study is which districts a streetcar line should connect. This exercise put names to them in a way that reveals how discussions about transportation will be framed from now on in the city center.

Some of the names are familiar — downtown, Ybor City, Hyde Park, the University of Tampa. Some are emerging — Tampa Heights and West River. One is a pipe dream still — the sweeping plans for property at Port Tampa Bay. And one is still in search of a name — the $2 billion Channel District redevelopment by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his partners.

All the estimated 50 communities nationwide that have committed to or are exploring streetcar systems started with hard choices about which districts to connect in this unique and expensive way. Tampa, with the restart of its 2.7-mile tourist-driven streetcar in 2002, is one of them.

When pioneering Portland, 27 years ago, studied whether to establish a modern streetcar system, it settled on a five-mile stretch that started at a university and ran straight through downtown. Now, the sleek, low-floor trams of the Portland Streetcar run 15 miles in three loops, clockwise and counterclockwise, spanning a river to take in a busy industrial district.

One of many systems modeled on Portland, Sunlink in Tucson, is a 3.9-mile line that connects the downtown with the university, stopping at a popular Bohemian shopping and dining district in between — four distinct districts in all.

Tampa, through the city's ongoing InVision project, is looking at an initial streetcar route that's even shorter at around three miles. Hard choices must be made here about city center districts to include and leave out, based in large part on the riders it aims to attract — people who live and work along the line, tourists, suburban arts patrons?

Whether a streetcar is even a good idea remains an open question. Is it worth an investment of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars for a payoff so short in miles?

Those who say yes point to the potential for economic benefits, with the possibility of commercial and residential development along the route, as well as the transit benefits in what's proving across many communities to be a highly popular way of getting around.

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Those who say no ask whether streetcars running in areas dense enough to draw ridership will move any faster than walking, subject as they are to much of the same congestion that burdens city center streets. They also question whether a better use of scarce resources might simply involve overhauling local bus routes and schedules — an alternative that is proving successful at minimal cost in Houston, Texas.

What's more, the new reality is that the federal dollars streetcar systems have relied upon to get started get short shrift in the draft budget recently released by President Donald Trump. Communities with funding agreements in place through federal Capital Investment Grant money are seen as safe by analysts, but not those with projects approved and still awaiting funding — Fort Lauderdale, among them, along with Tempe, Ariz., Sacramento and Orange County in California, and Baton Rouge, La.

Tampa is far from even submitting an application.

Another sad truth: Successful streetcar systems have proven to be just one component of a community's broader, comprehensive transportation plan — an achievement that has eluded Hillsborough County time and again, most recently with last year's flawed and failed Go Hillsborough sales-tax proposal.

Still, the streetcar study now under way in Tampa holds promise as a way to identify the connections the developing city center will need, whatever the means of connection might be. It may also help turn up transit solutions focused on a more urban area — a worthwhile undertaking considering that countywide transportation plans here die for lack of support in suburban areas.

The Florida Department of Transportation is putting in $1 million for the study, with $677,390 more coming from the city of Tampa. A roundtable on the public meeting results is scheduled May 2 at Hillsborough Community College in Ybor City and the study wraps up in June.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he's keeping an open mind about a streetcar system but insists on a solid business plan based on demand before moving forward.

That's a sound approach.