Riders turn out for new trolleys
By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- This city's new streetcar system started off with a clang Saturday.
Actually, clang clang.
Just before 10 a.m., seven canary-yellow cars lurched forward from Centennial Park in Ybor City, tugged by 600 volts of electricity and buoyed by dreams of urban renewal.
The conductors stepped on the clang buttons in their floors twice -- giving the streetcar signal for "giddyap" before the convoy hummed 2.3 miles to Channelside.
"Here we go. Heyyyy," said Kay Mullen, hoisting a pink rose above her head as other passengers clapped and cheered.
"I've been waiting 18 years," said her husband, Harris Mullen, co-founder of the Tampa and Ybor City Street Railway Society.
"It's pretty much like we envisioned," he said. "A little bigger. A little better."
The $53-million TECO Line Streetcar System is modeled after the one dismantled in 1946. Before falling victim to automobiles, the old cars moved millions of residents to work and play.
The new line is all about economic development, one piece in a puzzle that includes Ybor City, Channelside and downtown Tampa.
For now, organizers hope to transport 950 passengers a day.
In the future, they envision spurs to Tampa Heights, Hyde Park and other nearby neighborhoods.
"All these things make other things happen," said Mayor Dick Greco. The streetcar "will help the (Florida) Aquarium. It will bring more hotels."
Before the cars made their first run, Greco addressed about a thousand people in Centennial Park. Special guests included U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis.
The city has squirreled away enough money from grants and other sources to safeguard taxpayers if the system bombs, Greco said.
"If nobody rides this trolley for eight or 10 years, you're not going to have to pay for it out of your pocket," Greco told the crowd.
But nobody wanted to think negatively Saturday.
In the park, a brass band blared Dixieland music while a woman in a purple dress passed out bead necklaces. Along the route, hundreds of people waved and took pictures.
"Everybody wave at the cabbies," a tour guide said as one streetcar moved through Channelside. "They're mad that we're here."
Outside the St. Pete Times Forum, a band from Busch Gardens played the 1970s hit "I Can See Clearly Now" as the first round of passengers disembarked and hundreds of others waited to board.
The chorus: "It's gonna be a bright, (bright), bright, (bright), sunshiny day."
"This is the greatest thing to happen to Tampa," said Ed Wederbrand, 60, of West Tampa. "We need it. Who cares what it'll cost."
Wederbrand said one of his earliest memories was taking the streetcar with his mom from Seminole Heights to shop downtown.
Emily Johnson, 83, remembered the old cars, too. She drove one.
"It wasn't as plush as this," said the former conductor, who flew from Arizona to attend Saturday's event with her niece, Sheron Granger of Lakeland.
Among other changes, the new cars are air conditioned.
Johnson described how passengers once kept cool: "Put the window down, stick your head out."
Organizers expected 20,000 people Saturday to take advantage of free fares, which continue today from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Beginning Monday, fares are $1.25 one-way.
"We are hoping it helps," said Scott James, owners of The Spitting Gargoyle store in Ybor City. "Time will tell."
He might be encouraged by people like David and Marilyn Furman.
Until Saturday, they weren't impressed with Tampa.
Downtown is "unbelievably dead," said David Furman, a Charlotte, N.C. architect who commutes to Tampa on weekends while his wife interns at a state prison. "I didn't even see homeless people there."
But now, the Furmans can walk from their condo on Bayshore Boulevard to the streetcar station behind the Tampa Bay Convention Center. Ybor is minutes away.
"Now we can have an urban experience without our car," David Furman said.
At least in theory.
Saturday afternoon, the Furmans still had not ridden a streetcar.
The lines were too long.
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