Rolling back to the future
By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Tampa's streetcar system died on Aug. 3, 1946.
Streetcar bodies were stripped of their motors, wheels and seats, their carcasses tossed in scrap yards. Some eventually became chicken coops for farmers, or storage sheds. Six cars went to Pensacola and became a Christian summer camp.
Buses took over and Tampa's streetcars became a memory.
Today, the new TECO Line Streetcar System opens with all the fanfare of a family welcoming back a long lost relative.
At 9 a.m., there's the grand opening ceremony; at 10 a.m., a streetcar parade from Ybor City to downtown Tampa. Then the system opens to the public, and rides are free all this weekend.
Many shops in Ybor and Channelside are offering discounts. Channelside hosts a Fall Festival and Centro Ybor has Oktoberfest. There's a 5K walk today and a 5K race Sunday.
City and transportation leaders are bubbling over the $32-million project.
"The streetcar is going to tie together Ybor and downtown," said Mayor Dick Greco. "You know, people have said, 'Why don't you fill pot holes?' But the truth of the matter is, you are never going to fill all those no matter what. You have to invest in the city for growth."
Their hope: This clanging, rolling relic of the past will take Tampa into the future.
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In the roaring '20s, Tampa's streetcar enjoyed the limelight. Ridership numbered in the thousands.
Born in the 1880s -- first with wood-burning steam engines, then with electric cars in 1892 -- Tampa's streetcar system grew to 160 cars and 53 miles of track. It cost a nickel to ride.
Cars traveled all over Tampa from 4:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. the next day, covering some 9,000 miles every day -- the total distance between Tampa and Tokyo.
After World War II, the system was dismantled. Tampa modernized. A fleet of diesel buses rolled.
Occasionally, talk of bringing back the trolley would surface at meetings and in civic clubs. But it was all talk -- until Tom Ruddell came to town.
In 1984, he became the new vice president of corporate communications at Tampa Electric Co. A week into the job, he noticed the old tracks on Polk Street in downtown Tampa.
"You know, this will make a great streetcar line," he said to himself.
Ruddell rode streetcars in Pennsylvania, helped restore a trolley in Maine and wrote columns for streetcar publications. In April 1984, Ruddell organized the first meeting of the Tampa & Ybor City Street Railway Society. Six people showed up, including Harris Mullen of Ybor Square and local preservationist Joan Jennewein.
"I was very excited about the thought of reconnecting Ybor and Tampa as it used to be," said Jennewein.
The society had two objectives: to renovate old streetcars and to draw up a business plan to bring a streetcar system back to Tampa.
The project hooked some heavyweights early on, including Ybor City urban planner Michael English and Bob Martinez, then the mayor of Tampa.
But in 1986, Martinez left to become Florida's governor. City Council chairwoman Sandy Freedman took over.
"The world turned upside down on us," Ruddell said.
Freedman was not interested in funding the trolley. She wasn't sold on nostalgia and had other budget priorities. And she said at City Council meetings a trolley system would interfere with traffic.
The project stalled, and might have died if it wasn't for car No. 163.
Built in 1923, car No. 163 was one of those trolleys tossed in the scrap yard before it was bought by a Sulphur Springs resident who used it as a rented room for snowbirds.
In 1991, a city building inspector and streetcar society member Ted Richman found it on his rounds.
A hole was carved in its side for a washing machine hookup. The bottom was rusted from sitting on wet grass. The society bought car No. 163 in December 1991 and moved it to the warehouses of Tampa Tank, an industrial steel fabricator in east Tampa.
"It was probably the most dilapidated piece of trash I've ever seen," said Stephen McGee, project manager at Tampa Tank. He asked the Woodcrafters Club of Tampa for help. One person took up his challenge at the initial meeting: Lynn Keiter, a tool company manager.
"I've got a picture of him up on the roof, scraping the old shingles off, the first night," said McGee.
Slowly, others in the club grew interested, eventually becoming streetcar society members. Marty Miller, a retired GTE worker, added electrical know how. John Bloch, 58, a graphic artist, brought his son, Dennis, 36, a defense contractor worker.
There was Angel Ranon, 82, who rode Tampa streetcars when he was a kid in Ybor City. And Al Wuertz, a retired Delta airlines mechanic. And Joe Oural, who owned a corner hardware and paint store, and Bill Simmons, a trucking company manager.
On Tuesday nights for a decade, they met at the east Tampa warehouse, sanding, painting and varnishing Car No. 163, going home with grease on their faces and under their fingernails.
"It's a thrill making something old new again," said Wuertz.
"It was the rallying around that restoration of car No. 163 that helped keep the entire project alive," Ruddell said.
Then came Greco, who became mayor in 1995. Ruddell had breakfast with Greco and presented the society's 21-point business plan.
"You could tell he was really pumped," Ruddell said. "I remember we were grabbing the napkin back and forth, gleefully drawing track maps on napkins."
It wasn't a hard sell. As a kid, Greco rode the streetcar with his grandfather from Seminole Heights to Ballast Point pier to go fishing.
The streetcar also fit into Greco's development plan for Tampa.
"Ever since, he's been a strong supporter," Ruddell said. "Politics and history came together."
* * *
Today, opening day, a rebuilt car No. 163 will be on display at the Ybor Station, 1200 E Sixth Ave. But the overall rebirth of Tampa's streetcar system is still a work in progress. Only 2.3 miles of track have been laid, from Centro Ybor to the Tampa Convention Center. There's only nine stops, eight cars, all modeled to look old -- albeit with air-conditioning.
Money still has to be raised for expansion lines to Franklin Street, Phase II.
So far, the cost has been $32-million, about 60 percent from state and federal dollars. Doubts about ridership remain. Internal holdups are another hurdle. The operations manager HARTline hired to oversee the project is still in his native Australia awaiting immigration papers.
Mere bumps, say supporters.
The streetcar already has proven itself, said McGee. "It can survive."
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