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A gorgeous streetcar -- but are we there yet?

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 22, 2002


I found myself Monday morning on Tampa's new streetcar with a woman from San Francisco, Susan Willms, who must have strange tastes. She could have been shopping and spending at International Plaza. She chose instead to ride the streetcar's first northbound trip on a regular business day, making observations that she planned to later tell her husband. He was here on business.

Susan Willms' husband works for a bus manufacturer. That might explain her interest in mass transit. She also lives about 40 miles from San Francisco and absolutely never takes anything but mass transit to the city. And in every city she has visited -- New York, Boston, Washington, New Orleans -- she has taken a ride to see what public transit was like.

She was comparing Tampa to older, denser cities that have grown up around their mass transit systems and did not demolish them, as Tampa once did. I felt embarrassed. Here we had just ended a weekend celebration with politicians and bands to mark the start up of a 2.3-mile streetcar line that cost $53-million to build.

These numbers suggest disproportion of considerable size.

But Susan Willms didn't know those numbers. All she knew was what she saw, and she liked it.

Who wouldn't?

The streetcars are gorgeous.

Each seat is made of two kinds of wood, cherry and red oak that have been sealed with a high gloss finish. Above each seat hangs a tan leather strap for anybody who has to stand. When a passenger wants to get off he pulls a cord that runs along the ceiling and sets off a ding. When the trainman wants to announce the car's approach, he yanks a wooden pull that sets off a throaty whistle.

The man running the streetcar Monday was Bob Garcia. He has been a Hartline bus driver for 38 years, longer than anybody else in the system. In streetcar parlance, he is the general. Part of his job is to manage by radio the other cars running at the same time.

This takes more than a little skill. Much of the streetcar line is single track, so the cars have to be maneuvered carefully, one stopping to let an oncoming car pass. This is called a "hard meet." There are five hard meets along the little streetcar line.

But no stop is like the one outside Ybor City, where the streetcar tracks cross the tracks used by CSX and Amtrak trains. The streetcar has to stop until a CSX flagman gets the word from his own track supervisors that no train is coming. Then he flags the streetcar on. This is all the CSX flagman does, said John Creaton, a Hartline transit analyst who was on the streetcar.

This stopping and starting explains why a one-way ride from downtown Tampa to Ybor City took 26 minutes -- just fine for tourists with time on their hands, but a problem for people who live here and have appointments to make.

This is not meant as criticism of the streetcar buffs and all-round urban dreamers who have been devoted to the cause for nearly 20 years. They campaigned for their streetcar with the passion other people reserve for their favorite sports teams, especially losing ones. If devotion were the only measure of success, then this streetcar would be a hit, a big hit.

But it won't pay for itself anytime soon. No matter its good looks, the streetcar will probably limp along for several years, hobbled by its own limitations, of where it doesn't go and how long a ride takes.

I have been in Tampa for almost as long as the streetcar has been in the works. I have seen other promised projects come amid much ballyhoo, then go, especially downtown, like the revival of the old Maas Bros. building, the Floridan Hotel, the Franklin Street Mall. I am practiced in my disappointment.

I would like to make a wish about the streetcar. I wish that I am wrong about it, dead wrong.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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