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    Greco puts a spark to trolley line

    A half-century after its clickety-click faded, an electric trolley is on track for 2002, with "Shirley's Car.''

    By SUE CARLTON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2001


    TAMPA -- The mayor was just a kid then, a boy sitting next to his grandfather on a trolley car, holding their fishing poles. They rode up Bayshore Boulevard toward the Ballast Point Pier, the car going click-click-click on the tracks, swaying the way trolleys do.

    Half a century or so later, with Tampa's modest skyscrapers over his shoulder, a grown-up Mayor Dick Greco stood before the cameras in a charcoal suit and hard hat, kicking off construction of an electric trolley system last seen in these parts in 1946.

    Planners have high hopes that, beginning on April Fool's Day next year, the new version will be ready to ferry fun-seekers between downtown, the port entertainment complex and a modern Ybor City bustling with bars and restaurants.

    In the railway version of a ribbon-cutting Tuesday, the mayor ignited a spark that helped meld the first two pieces of 80-foot rail in Tampa's historic quarter. The ceremony's optimistic message: Past, meet Tampa's future.

    "I remember when we got rid of the streetcar tracks. We hated 'em," the mayor told the crowd, who laughed. "Now we're paying $30-million to bring them back."

    That price, actually $31.5-million, will pay for the first 2.3-mile leg of the TECO Line Streetcar System, which will begin at Eighth Avenue in Ybor City and run through the Centro Ybor entertainment complex. It will then head for the port, curving past the Florida Aquarium and the Channelside shops and restaurants before ending at the Marriott Waterside hotel. The whole trip, including 12 stops on tracks that run alongside street traffic, will take about 22 minutes. Plans include a leg from the convention center into downtown -- and perhaps beyond.

    "My vision?" said Sharon Dent of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HARTline), which will operate and maintain the streetcars. "Hyde Park."

    It was hard amid Tuesday's fanfare not to be sentimental about the bright yellow streetcar on hand, modeled after the Birney Safety Cars that once ran extensively through Tampa. Boosters showed how spring-loaded poles on top of the cars connect them to overhead wiring, which powers them with 650 volts of electricity along a track.

    The curved seats inside are gleaming cherry and oak, with thick leather loops overhead to hold onto. Light fixtures above the seats are old-fashioned glass, with ceilings painted in charming detail. There is a pull-bell to ding. Modern concessions include more seamless track that will mean a quieter ride, handicapped seating and air conditioning.

    "Everybody would like to have historic authenticity, but I think they'll forgive us in the middle of August," said HARTline public liaison Ed Crawford.

    But as with other recent ambitious Tampa projects -- notably, Centro Ybor and the Shops at Channelside -- there is the lingering question.

    Will people come?

    Greco waves that away like cigar smoke, pointing to the hordes at Super Bowl, to the weekend crowds currently packing Centro's movies and restaurants, to new apartments blocks away and in nearby Tampa Heights. The trolley will also rely on cruise ship passengers and hotel conventioneers not likely to walk to Ybor or downtown. Plus, there is the nostalgic charm of hopping on a trolley car, say boosters, who expect a half-million riders a year.

    And those with less faith?

    "I think you could pave the streets in gold for free, and somebody would complain there's a glare," Greco said.

    Fifty percent of the project's cost is coming from federal grants; 20 percent is coming from the state; and 30 percent, the city, according to city documents. Fare prices for the trolley haven't been set, but planners expect they will be comparable with HARTline bus fares of $2.50, for a day of unlimited rides.

    SunTrust Bank purchased naming rights to the first trolley, calling it "Shirley's Car" for Shirley Ryals, a well-known banker and civic booster who died last year. City officials said they expect Time Warner to buy the naming of a car, and Carmine's restaurant to do the same for a trolley station along the route.

    Commissioner Jan Platt, on hand for Tuesday's ceremony, recalled riding Tampa's trolley with her parents to go shopping downtown.

    "I loved that streetcar," she said. "I didn't know if I was going to live to see it return."

    "It's interesting," she said. "We're looking back to go ahead."

    - Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Sue Carlton can be reached at (813)226-3346 or carlton@sptimes.

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