Mayor envisions no-car downtown

A bus system, called circulators, would take residents between home and work and a night on the town by 2010.

Published July 31, 2006

TAMPA - With thousands of condominiums planned in and around downtown, the area promises a neighborhood where people can live, work and play without relying on cars.

But entertainment and employment centers are still too far from homes for a comfortable walk in heels or suits, especially in the heat of summer.

Mayor Pam Iorio hopes to change that.

She's pushing for a downtown bus system, called downtown circulators, to move people from home to work or to dinner and a movie.

Iorio would like the buses in place by 2010, when much of the planned construction will be finished.

"That's when you're going to have the kind of numbers that are going to warrant this kind of system," she said.

Iorio envisions a day when people living in the Channel District will ride a bus to see a play at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, or residents on N Franklin Street will catch a bus to get to work at County Center.

"Our long-term goal for downtown is for people to not be car-dependent," Iorio said.

Next year, the Metropolitan Planning Organization will be footing the bill for research of circulators that will look at traffic patterns downtown day to day and during special events. This is being carried out at the request of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Tampa Downtown Partnership, and will take into account proposed residential development and downtown employment centers.

"The last thing we want is for someone to get in a car and drive a few blocks," said Ray Miller, executive director of HARTline.

Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, said circulators are critical to giving downtown residents an urban environment.

"I am thinking about residents who are buying into the relatively unheard of concept here of not using your car for days at a time, of living in a place where you have an opportunity to play and even work within proximity of your residence," Burdick said. "That's the environment that's being sold here, and it's the concept they're buying into."

The circulators could also serve workers who could drive toward downtown from Carrollwood or New Tampa and leave their cars in remote parking garages for the day.

Downtown has a streetcar that travels from near the Tampa Convention Center to Ybor City, and supporters are looking at ways to extend the line into downtown. But Iorio doesn't see it as a practical means of moving large numbers of workers and residents.

"The streetcar is helpful," she said. "But a circulator system could have many more stops and much more flexibility. One day, the circulator system could stop at most of the major condominiums."

Iorio also thinks the circulator would be less expensive than building more streetcar tracks, but Miller said it's hard to know that without more study.

Officials have previously estimated that a 0.3-mile extension that would take the streetcar tracks closer to the downtown business district would cost $3-million to $4-million.

New buses cost about $300,000 each, and routes serving the S Howard Avenue neighborhood, Old Hyde Park Village, downtown and Harbor Island cost about $600,000 a year to operate.

Downtown mass transit is only a tiny piece of Tampa's larger transportation dilemma, something made clear during rush hour and special events.

To get people out of their cars and into public transportation, Iorio would like to see more money directed to HARTline and a discussion of rail service between the airport, the West Shore business district, downtown and the University of South Florida.

She's also floating the idea of a bus system that could focus on Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

"Perhaps we could get state funding for that kind of service if we consolidate and showed we could offer cost savings and better hurricane evacuation," she said. "There might be some economies of scale if we were to look at commuter patterns and the cost savings of merging under one umbrella organization. ... That could be the foundation for further enhancements to mass transit."