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A desire named streetcar

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[Photo from Tampa & Ybor City Street Railway Society]
The Tampa & Ybor City Street Railway Society has spent about 20,000 hours restoring a 1923 Birney Safety Car. A $53.8-million streetcar system linking downtown and Ybor City will open in October.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 28, 2002


Supporters count on a streetcar system to give the downtown economy a lift. Skeptics wonder if costs outweigh benefits.

DOWNTOWN TAMPA -- The features impress many mass transit fans: electric streetcars with air-conditioning and shiny oak seats. A transportation hub with park benches and street vendors. Conductors who crack jokes and give directions.

One question looms. Will people ride it?

Tampa's $53.8-million TECO Line Streetcar System opens in October, linking downtown and Ybor City along a 2.3-mile route of track and electric wires.

Supporters say streetcars will promote development, attract tourists and boost Tampa's image. Critics fear a costly burden on taxpayers.

Ridership projections offer little insight. They have ranged from 264,000 to 1-million passengers a year, depending on who's talking.

The latest figure from the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit System: 347,000, or 950 people a day.

HART looked at ridership in cities such as Memphis and considered the draw of the Florida Aquarium, cruise ship terminals, Channelside, the Tampa Convention Center and Centro Ybor.

In the end, ridership matters less than perception, city officials say. They figure a union of charming streetcars and top venues will put downtown Tampa on a fast track.

"I'm looking at the economic impact and not what the initial ridership is," said Ron Rotella, consultant to Mayor Dick Greco.
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[Photo from Tampa & Ybor City Street Railway Society]
This is what the Birney streetcar looked like when it was found in a Sulphur Springs back yard. It had been gutted and used as an apartment and for storage.

"It's not a transportation project, it's an economic development component of downtown."

Skeptics, including City Council member Bob Buckhorn, see a red flag in the shifting numbers. Streetcars rely on fare revenue to offset a chunk of operating costs.

"I think we went into this project with a severe lack of data. I don't trust the projections at all," said Buckhorn, who voted against the streetcar.

"Projections rarely come through."

He points to the aquarium. The 7-year-old Tampa tourist attraction was expected to attract 1.4-million visitors a year, but currently has an attendance of about 619,000.

The result: city subsidies to cover costs.

HART budgeted the project on 347,000 riders and a net revenue of 80 cents per passenger, said Steve Carroll, engineer in charge of the project.

The line will cost about $1.5-million a year to operate. Based on the latest ridership projection, that would cost about $4.32 per passenger per trip.

After the first few years, HART expects streetcars to pay a third of their operational costs, between passenger fares and advertisements inside the cars. A tax charged to businesses along the route will pay another third. Proceeds from a streetcar endowment should fund the rest.

The endowment, worth about $4.6-million, came largely from the people mover that once linked downtown to Harbour Island, shut down for lack of riders.

Tampa Electric Co. agreed to give $1-million over several years for naming rights. Other businesses, such as SunTrust Bank and Dish restaurant, pledged $100,000 to $250,000 to have their names on station stops and individual streetcars.

HART is developing the streetcar system with the city of Tampa and the nonprofit Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc. HART will operate and maintain it. The streetcar group will manage it and set fares, estimated at $1 to $1.50 a ride.

"I think people are going to love it," said the group's president, Michael English, an urban planner. "It takes us to a new level."

For the first time, people could attend a conference in Tampa, stay in a downtown hotel and use public transit to grab dinner at Channelside or a drink in Ybor City. He cites Memphis, where streetcar ridership doubled from 1993 to 1998. Today, it boasts about 1-million passengers a year.

In Tampa, some argue the cost will outweigh the benefits. Streetcars will cater to out-of-towners, not locals. To use it, most residents would have to drive to a parking garage, pay to park, then pay again to ride.

"It's a very short run for a very small audience," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Frank. "We have so many other needs that are greater."

Resident Neil Cosentino said adding buses could have achieved the same result, at a fraction of the cost. He likened the project to putting a Jacuzzi on every corner. Someone walking by in a swimsuit might jump in, but is it necessary?

"This something Disney World should have built, not the city," said Cosentino, president of a local think tank that studies transportation issues. "There's a lot of hype and it looks pretty, but it's a disaster. I wish it wasn't, but it is."

A longtime Davis Islands resident, he would have preferred a regional bus system with direct links to the airport or St. Petersburg. As it stands now, most people in Tampa can't get to work easily by bus.

The streetcar idea dates to 1984, when the Tampa & Ybor City Street Railway Society formed to resurrect a quaint, efficient form of transit. Buses replaced Tampa's original 53-mile system in 1946.

Over the years, society members pitched the project to various governmental and civic groups, gradually gaining support. In 1991, volunteers began restoring a 1923 Birney Safety Car, discovered in the back yard of a Sulphur Springs home.

They've spent roughly 20,000 hours returning the streetcar to its original glory, said Stephen McGee, the society's vice president and restoration chairman. The car had been gutted and converted into an apartment and, later, a storage unit.

The car will be recommissioned in the next few months, marking the first return of a Florida streetcar to service, McGee said. Fully operational, it will be used mostly for special events.

Eight new streetcars will run on new tracks between the Tampa Convention Center on Franklin Street and Eighth Avenue in Ybor City. Powered by overhead electric lines, the $605,000 cars carry 84 passengers, including 40 on foot.

The bright yellow and red cars were built by Gomaco Trolley, an Iowa company that makes vintage streetcars. Replicas of the old Birney cars, they measure 50 feet long and weigh 23 tons.

HART plans to operate four cars at a time. Although the schedules aren't set, the streetcars will likely run every 15 minutes seven days a week, with extended hours on the weekend. They travel at about 6.5 mph.

The average ride from downtown Tampa to Ybor City should clock at 22 minutes, depending on traffic. The 2.3-mile route includes 12 covered stops with benches, trash bins, lights and information kiosks.

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Channel District stops will reflect the area's modern architecture with their stainless steel roofs, aquamarine terrazzo and sky blue soffits. Stops in Ybor will resemble historic train sheds, with brick bases, wrought iron railings and wooden rooftops.

The line will let tourists and conventioneers visit downtown attractions without a car or taxi.

"It's a fun and nostalgic way to get around," McGee said. "You can park your car once and have someone else drive you to different sites."

Phase 2 -- still unfunded and on the drawing board -- would cater to downtown workers and future downtown residents. It would follow Franklin Street from the convention center to Kennedy Boulevard, with stops near the Hyatt Regency Hotel and the future Cultural Arts District.

State and federal grants are covering the bulk of Phase 1 construction costs. The city kicked in about $10-million, double the amount expected when the City Council approved the project in 1998.

Planners attribute the rising costs to desired changes in the system, not overruns. They added air-conditioning to the cars and opted to put pavement, not gravel, around the tracks. They also paid top dollar for the turnaround station site, called the Southern Transportation Plaza.

The $14.5-million plaza across from the convention center will elaborately mark the western end of the line -- with a streetcar stop, bus stops, taxi parking, lush landscaping, benches and street vendors.

Construction began Monday, with an opening date set for December.

Farther north, work continues on a $7.3-million streetcar maintenance and storage barn called Ybor Station. The three-story building takes a cue from Ybor, with a brick facade that blends with the historic district.

Crews are expected to finish the building in October.
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[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Construction is under way on Ybor Station at Seventh Avenue and 13th Street. Work is expected to be complete in October.

Streetcars were supposed to be up and running in April, but were delayed for various reasons. Track materials arrived late. A local construction boom sapped workers. Crews found unexpected utilities underground.

Contractors plan to start testing the streetcars along the route in three to four weeks. HART will pluck 15 to 16 conductors from its pool of bus drivers. Training starts this summer.

To qualify, conductors must be friendly and up-to-date on Tampa and its tourist attractions. To run the cars, they must be able to stand for long periods. HART wants people with fun-loving personalities who enjoy talking with tourists and answering questions.

Supporters say the streetcar will put Tampa in the same category as New Orleans, Portland, Ore., and other cities with popular trolley systems. Patience is the key, said Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership.

"I just hope that people don't judge it by the first month or two," she said. "These are fixtures. It wouldn't be New Orleans without the streetcars. You have them for a long time."
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[HART]

-- Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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