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Lengthening the line

HARTline hopes its plan to extend the Uptown Downtown Connector will boost ridership and funnel people onto its new streetcar.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 10, 2003


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[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
The yellow Uptown Downtown Connector currently loops around downtown from Kay Street to Harbour Island. HARTline wants to add a new route that would extend it to Old Hyde Park Village.
DOWNTOWN -- About once a week, Carlos Gonzalez and a group of co-workers at Maritrans leave their offices on Harbour Island to go downtown for lunch.

Instead of piling into cars and scouring streets for a parking meter, they take the Uptown Downtown Connector, a yellow trolley bus through downtown Tampa.

They like the convenience and the price: free.

Four years after starting the connector, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority wants to add a route to the University of Tampa, Old Hyde Park Village and a tiny stretch of Howard Avenue.

Gonzalez and his co-workers relish the thought of more restaurants to choose from, more stores to browse. "It's a great idea," Gonzalez said.

The expansion is part of a plan to boost flat ridership and to funnel people into the new $53-million streetcar between Channelside and Ybor City. The connector, which runs north and south through downtown to Harbour Island, stops at the streetcar station near the Tampa Marriott Waterside.

Some downtown workers use it every day.

"This thing is awesome," said Lawrence Stamper, a wireless telecommunications project manager who rides the connector from his home on Harbour Island. "I don't have to drive to work and I don't have to pay to park."

Along with the new route, HARTline hopes to extend the connector's hours to draw the after-work and weekend crowds. Currently, the connector runs every 10 minutes from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, making it accessible to business people, but not to tourists or locals out for a night on the town.

The new hours would coincide with the streetcar schedule so that people who ride the connector could return to their destination without getting stranded.

"A lot of it will be driven by demand," said Jill Cappadoro, a HARTline spokeswoman.

And by money.

HARTline would rely on the city of Tampa, area business groups and hotels to pay for the added service. To help offset costs, the agency would likely charge $1 for trips to Hyde Park, or for weekend and nighttime travel.

The transit agency has verbal commitments from different groups but, so far, no cash. To offset some of the operational costs, HARTline would need $150,000 a year from the city for the next three years.

If approved by the City Council, the Hyde Park trolley could roll by the end of March, but the matter isn't yet on the council's agenda.

Although Mayor Dick Greco has said he supports the idea, getting the council on board could take some convincing. Council members had reservations about levying a streetcar tax for property owners along the route, and they made it clear that they didn't want the money used for expanding the connector.

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Council member Rose Ferlita said she's hesitant to give HARTline more money for the service but recognizes that it could help the village, which is struggling to draw shoppers.

"I think it's definitely going to shoot some oxygen to Hyde Park," she said. "I think it will be money well-spent if we can educate people to use it."

The yellow rubber-tired trolley has met with mixed reviews. Although HARTline deems it a success in reducing the number of daily car trips, officials concede it could handle more passengers.

The connector averages about 300 riders a day or about 5,500 a month, according to HARTline. It often rolls by with just a handful of people. Sometimes, only the driver. Many hop on for a few blocks.

"If I'm walking down the street and it's cold -- or too hot -- I get on," said Davell Taylor, who uses the connector to get from his parking spot to his office in the Park Tower.

Even supporters say the service has been slow to catch on. Christine Burdick, head of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, called it downtown's most under-utilized, best-kept secret.

"It's a little bit of a mystery," she said. "A lot of people don't know how convenient it is. They don't know how to catch it and they don't know where it goes."

Adding hours, weekend service and a leg to Hyde Park would invite more usage, she said. The trolley would stop at the University of Tampa/Henry Plant Museum and Old Hyde Park Village and turn around near Howard and Swann avenues.

"It gives another dimension to the service," said Burdick, who rides the connector to business meetings. "If it's marketed well, I'm sure it will be well-utilized."

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Carlos Gonzalez, right, along with coworkers from Maritrans, return to their Harbour Island office on the Uptown Downtown Connector after having lunch downtown. HARTline's proposal to expand the line will give them more restaurants and stores to choose from.
The partnership, a nonprofit group formed to revitalize Tampa's downtown, intends to kick in money for the project, but hasn't set a figure, Burdick said.

HARTline started pitching the project a few months ago and recently stepped up efforts to cash in on commitments. The agency wants a few thousand dollars from each downtown hotel.

"The project relies on the financial support from businesses," Cappadoro said. "We need them to recognize the value."

The Marriott Waterside likes the idea but has no plans to contribute financially, said Bob Stewart, the hotel's marketing director. The hotel, which serves mostly conventioneers, corporate and group clients, offers no transportation, not even to the airport.

Nonetheless, he expects some of his guests will use the trolley to get to Hyde Park restaurants and shops.

"We do get a fair amount of leisure customers who ask, 'Where can we go?' " he said. "Hyde Park, International Plaza and Ybor are the top three places that we send them."

To make an impact, HARTline needs to secure enough funding to run the new route and hours for at least three years, Cappadoro said. The agency has nine trolleys but needs money for the drivers and maintenance. Federal, city and county transportation dollars initially got the connector rolling.

"It's not a good thing to put it out there and yank it away," Cappadoro said. "People have to know that it's there and that they can rely on it."

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com .

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