Streetcar plan not derailed

By Mike Brassfield, Times Staff Writer
Published March 6, 2008

TAMPA - Officials had a tug-of-war Wednesday over a $900,000 grant that could help Tampa's streetcar extend its tracks into the heart of downtown.

The county's transit agency, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, is debating whether to spend that money on the streetcar or on more frequent service on its busiest bus route, Nebraska Avenue.

HART's board members, a mix of city and county officials and appointees, are facing a tight deadline to make the decision. But in the end, streetcar supporters bought themselves two more weeks to make their case.

The $900,000 federal grant was slated for the streetcar, but will expire soon. The HART board voted last month to use it for buses because plans for the streetcar extension weren't ready and board members didn't want to risk losing the money.

But the streetcar system board cried foul. The City Council voted to ask HART to reconsider. That led to Wednesday's debate.

HART board member David Mechanik said the city and HART have invested millions in the streetcar, and the extension is crucial to attract more local passengers. "It would seem a terrible waste for us to change course in midstream," he said.

But County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said HART should focus on its "core mission" of offering people an alternative to cars, and the grant could help prime the Nebraska Avenue bus route for an upcoming, high-tech "bus rapid transit" line there.

With the $900,000 grant, officials would have $3.4-million for the extension. A consultant estimated the cost at $3.7- to $4.25-million, said Mark Huey, Tampa's economic development director.