Trolley system hits short-term pothole

Budget cuts slow the evolution of Iorio's vision of a "great circulator system."

By Mike Brassfield Times Staff Writer
Published October 19, 2007

Route 96, by the numbers

Here are ridership numbers for the downtown trolley for five fiscal years, including the just-ended 2007. The service was free before 2004, when HART implemented the current fare of 50 cents











New trolley hours

Effective in late November

Downtown trolley: 6-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday

Entertainment shuttle: 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday


Times Staff Writer

The little canary-yellow trolley bus that wheels around downtown has a devoted following but a dwindling one.

Office workers hop on it to go grab lunch. Tourists take it from their hotel rooms to the convention center. Maids, bartenders and servers at those big hotels ride it to work, transferring from bigger buses that haul them downtown.

But the trolley - actually a small fleet of trolley buses that circulate every 15 minutes - is being tugged in different directions.

In the long term, Mayor Pam Iorio and others envision a beefed-up system of more frequent buses, called downtown circulators. The goal is to make this growing downtown a place where people can live, work and play without relying on cars.

But in the short term, budget cuts are slashing the hours and routes.

Starting Nov. 19, the trolley will disappear from downtown's streets in the middle of the day and on weeknights, and will stop shuttling between downtown and Hyde Park.

At the same time, its morning and afternoon route will stretch farther north to Interstate 275 to pick up commuters who drive downtown from Carrollwood or New Tampa and leave their cars in cheaper remote lots for the day.

"We're stepping back to the way the trolley originally operated. It's going back to being much more of a parking circulator," said Jill Cappadoro, spokeswoman for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, which operates the trolley.

Also late next month, the trolley will cut its evening hours, stopping at 6 instead of 10 p.m. - except on weekends, when it will transform into an "entertainment shuttle" on Friday and Saturday nights, ferrying riders between destinations like Channelside, the St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, hotels and parking, as late as 2 a.m.

"This is just the beginning," Cappadoro said. "This will evolve over the years with the city's growth."

A brief history

Officials call it "the rubber-wheeled trolley" to differentiate it from the electric streetcar on rails, which runs a separate route between the Tampa Convention Center and Ybor City.

Over the years, the trolley has gotten mixed reviews. HART says it's useful and decreases the number of cars downtown, although everyone concedes it could handle more passengers. The trolley often rolls by with just a handful of riders, and sometimes only the driver.

It used to be free. It started charging a 50-cent fare in 2004, partly to pay for evening hours and a new route to Hyde Park Village. Since then, annual ridership on the downtown loop has steadily dropped from nearly 130,000 to about 78,000.

A vision of the future

Even in a housing slump, downtown Tampa is expected to keep growing - just not as fast.

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 the County Center.

Her long-term goal of a "great circulator system" is part of a much bigger vision that includes light rail running through downtown. If rail ever comes, it will need to match up with a better bus and trolley network. That would be the only way to convince people they could move around without their cars in the Florida heat.

"What we have now is an environment where people get in their car to go five blocks downtown," said Ed Crawford, HART's government affairs director. "Going forward, the question is going to be: Do we not want to do things like downtown circulators? Do we just do regular bus routes and call it a day? Or do we want to become a place where you can reasonably expect to get around on public transit?"

Hillsborough transportation planners just finished a study that maps out options and potential routes for a downtown circulator system. They looked at traffic patterns, employment and entertainment centers, and plans for condos and apartments.

They also reviewed what similar downtowns are doing; some are running frequent electric shuttles instead of the gasoline-powered trolley buses that Tampa uses.

The study makes long-range recommendations for 2012 or beyond:

- Make the circulators free and frequent.

- Connect to Ybor.

- Make downtown more pedestrian-friendly with better sidewalks, lighting and connections to transit stops.

- Integrate the streetcar into this system.

Of course, making all of this "free and frequent" is a tall order.

"Circulators are a challenging service. They're very expensive," said Mary Shavalier, HART's planning director. "And circulators, in my opinion, don't work unless they're frequent."

There are different ways to pay for it. The study noted the example of places like Chattanooga, Tenn., Norfolk, Va., and Orlando, which funnel cars into city-owned parking garages on the edges of their downtowns. Commuters then hop on a free shuttle that's partly funded by their parking fees. Tampa could look at adopting some version of that model, transportation planners said.

The study also made short-term recommendations - like the Friday and Saturday night entertainment shuttle that's in the works. HART is hunting for sponsors to underwrite the cost of running that late shuttle during special events like Gasparilla, Guavaween, the Fourth of July and New Year's Eve.

The present day

Here's the catch: Transportation planners launched this research project before property tax rollbacks forced HART to cut its budget and trolley service.

"We were not anticipating this when we started out with the study," said Lucie Ayer, executive director of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Now, HART is killing off a few little-used bus routes around the county. During midday, the downtown trolley carries fewer than two passengers per trip, so it will be limited to the peak morning and afternoon hours. See accompanying box. The trolley that runs to Hyde Park also carries fewer than two riders per trip, so it's being eliminated entirely.

Still, officials view the downtown circulator study as a road map for the future.

Said Crawford, of HART: "This makes an excellent blueprint for where we need to go, current funding problems notwithstanding."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or brassfield@sptimes.com.