From Atlanta to Tucson, the streetcar is the hot transit option for bustling downtowns. Compact, affordable and shovel-ready, these projects are seen as attractive pieces of mass transit systems in major urban areas and are about quality of life as much as efficient movement. Tampa could join those progressive cities by following up on a new report that details options for extending its streetcar, which is now more novelty than useful transportation. Hillsborough County's mass transit agency, HART, should take the next step and launch a more thorough study of the promising project.
The report by the consulting group HDR did not examine actual costs or ridership figures. But it is valuable because it frames the limited reach of the streetcar now and its potential moving forward. The streetcar is a historic-looking trolley that runs a 2.7-mile route from Ybor City to the Channel District and downtown. But only two of the 11 stations are downtown, and they are on the southern end far from many downtown offices, the arts district and new condos and restaurants.
Extending it north would transform the streetcar from an underutilized tourist attraction to a true component of the city's transit system. The four routes examined by HDR would connect the streetcar to HART's transit hub on Marion Street. All four have their strengths. The Ashley route would run along Curtis Hixon Park and the arts district. The Tampa-Florida link would be centrally located. The Franklin route would capitalize on the street's outdoor mall. A Marion alignment would create speedier downtown service on an existing mass transit corridor.
But HART and the city need a better idea of ridership, service levels and costs before they can begin an informed public debate. HART has many considerations, from whether to use modern vehicles (which could increase the cost) to how to meld the system with the existing roads and bus routes.
Officials also need to keep the project on budget and on schedule, which hasn't always happened elsewhere. Will the streetcar continue as a downtown service, or morph into a rail line with a further reach? Will it be seen primarily as a way to move people, or for developing the downtown core? What are Tampa's chances for securing federal money? And will the state provide some financial support and liability coverage?
Hillsborough officials are expected to decide this year whether to present a broader transit package to county voters in 2016. But HART doesn't need to wait. The streetcar will be an integral part of any downtown transit service; it already factors in Jeff Vinik's plans for remaking the Channel District into a mixed-use community, and it's uniquely suited to connect downtown's office buildings, hotels, parks, museums and restaurants.
A detailed study would help the city build from what other communities experienced. It also would bring the city up to speed on the federal financial outlook as the Obama administration and the newly Republican-controlled Congress address funding for local transportation projects.
This is an opportunity to make downtown easier and cheaper to navigate, to further development in Tampa's urban core and to put the streetcar on sound financial footing. After two failures at the polls on both sides of the bay, it could provide a confidence boost as leaders look to revive a broader transit package.