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Trolley costs surge

The price tag of the project soars to more than $53-million, further dividing its boosters and detractors.

photo
[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
Workers on the trolley track make adjustments outside the Ice Palace in Tampa on Tuesday.
By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001


TAMPA -- Three years ago, city officials expected the cost to resurrect Tampa's historic electric trolley system along a 2.3-mile stretch between downtown and Ybor City would be $23-million.

Even then, skeptics questioned the cost and wondered whether riders would materialize in a city that has not embraced mass transit since the original trolley disappeared in the 1940s.

Those fears remain, but with the project roaring toward completion in April, the stakes have grown hugely.

The latest price tag: $53.5-million.

Huge land acquisition costs, a fancier trolley barn, and upgrades in the track have helped double the cost. "That's an ungodly sum of money," said City Council member Bob Buckhorn, a vocal opponent of the trolley.

Ridership estimates, meanwhile, have also doubled. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit system, or HARTline, once figured on 260,000 riders a year. Now it's banking on 500,000.

To justify the higher estimates, consultants point to development at the Port, to Centro Ybor, the Convention Center and Channelside. They also point to ridership on successful trolley systems in Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans.

Although HARTline has tapped state and federal grants to cover the bulk of the mushrooming costs, the city is on the hook for $12.7-million. When the council approved the project in 1998, the city expected to be responsible for $5-million.

Council Chairman Charlie Miranda, who voted to build the trolley, was surprised last week to learn of the cost. Had he known the actual cost, he said, "I would have looked at it with a different opinion. But I can't go back."

Ardent trolley boosters, including Mayor Dick Greco, argued three years ago that the trolley would spur development, bedazzle visitors and marry the downtown convention center with Ybor.

For aficionados hooked on the buzz of the wires and the ding-ding-ding of the bell, skeptics counter, the yen for electric streetcars goes beyond logic and into the realm of quasi-religion.

"We're talking about little toys," said Wendell Cox, a St. Louis-based transportation consultant and leading critic of trolleys and light rail. "They don't perform any function."

Cox said that trolley systems don't spur development along their routes and that buses can move people at one-fifth the cost. Even a replica trolley on wheels could shuttle people between downtown and Ybor much more cheaply, he said.

In hawking transportation projects to people in power, Cox said, proponents sometimes low-ball costs to sneak the project in the door. When the true costs become evident, he said, it's too late to reverse course.

"Part of the strategy is to sell a project you know isn't robust, and then add the things that are necessary to make it work," he said.

So what accounts for the rising costs in Tampa?

The $13.5-million to build a trolley terminal across from the Convention Center and the Marriott Hotel.

The $7.3-million for a trolley yard and maintenance facility, known as Ybor Station. In an earlier plan, the yard would have been on a transformed city maintenance lot. But Greco decided to sell that lot and another location had to be found. The change added up to $6-million to the cost, HARTline said.

The $742,500 added to the cost of 3,300 feet of trolley route once intended to be built with gravelly "ballasted track." It will now get more expensive, aesthetically superior, and pedestrian-friendly "slab track" near the Port Authority and other places.

"We didn't want something running on gravel that looked like it was out in the boonies of Florida," said Ron Rotella, the mayor's development consultant.

Rotella said the increased costs are part of making the trolley work. "I wouldn't call them cost overruns," he said. "There were some decisions to enhance the system, to do some things on the front end we'd anticipated doing in later years."

However, some costs were not foreseen.

HARTline officials said the cost to build the trolley line is $1-million to $1.5-million more than contractors initially estimated. They say the trolley route had to be moved from the south side to the north side of Ice Palace Drive when engineers determined they couldn't squeeze it next to the Marriott Waterside hotel.

Also underestimated: the possibility of a sky-high premium on a $500-million insurance policy demanded by CSX, which runs the railroad track the trolley will cross in Ybor. Steve Carroll, HARTline's trolley engineer, said he has heard quotes on the premium ranging from $500,000 to $2-million a year. Only $100,000 was budgeted for the insurance.

"People just really started investigating," Carroll said. "You would think there would be more than five or six insurance companies that sell policies like that, but in fact that's all there is."

The insurance premium will be tacked on to the trolley's estimated $1.5-million annual operating expenses, which will be paid by Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc., a non-profit group formed to run the trolley.

At an estimated $1 per ride, ridership fees are expected to cover at least 20 to 25 percent of the operating costs, said Michael English, the group's president.

Other money will come from an endowment that now surpasses $5-million, the sale of ads on the trolley cars and stations, and a special tax on properties along the route that has raised about $230,000 in its first year. The state has agreed to contribute $700,000 a year for the first three years.

"We're really trying to find as many revenue sources as we can, so we don't have to ask the city to cover a budget shortfall," English said.

English believes the trolley will become a magnet for conventioneers, hotel guests and meeting planners. "People don't like to drive in strange places if they can avoid it, so if you come here you don't need to rent a taxi to get from your hotel to Ybor City," he said. "It'll be inexpensive. It'll be fun. It reaches back to the city's heritage. It has a romantic cachet to it which is very real."

Elton Smith, the city's transportation director, doesn't expect the trolley to draw a lot of commuters every day. Instead, he expects peak crowds before and after events downtown and at the Ice Palace and Convention Center.

Smith said the trolley is already doing its job. He believes the expectation of its arrival has fueled the development in Ybor, Channelside and the Port. "No one thought six, seven, eight years ago that the development along the route was going to move this quickly," Smith said. "In a sense, it is the success of the (trolley) concept that has added to the cost of the trolley."

Those arguments fail to persuade everyone.

"You think about $50-million and what it might be able to do" for the suburbs and poor neighborhoods, said Cox, the transportation consultant. "It's the worst example of fiddling while Rome burns."

It rankles council member Buckhorn that about 40 percent of the $10-million the city gets every year in gas tax revenue, money traditionally used for basic road improvements, is being used to pay off a bond that finances the trolley.

He doubts the city will get all of the reimbursement dollars it hopes to get.

"I think (trolley supporters) wanted to get it done so badly they said what it took to get it done," he said. "I'm saying they were enthusiastic in their presentation."

- Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

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