Tampa’s current streetcar system opened in 2002. By 1994, when Mayor Dick Greco was elected, plans were under way and interest was growing in developing the south and east sides of downtown.
These areas, along with Ybor City, are now bustling spots for entertainment, retail, restaurants and museums.
Mayor Greco publicly stated at the time that, while he liked streetcars, his real interest was in economic development, which he was certain a streetcar line would stimulate. Of course, opposition claimed it was not going to support itself, not mentioning that transit — like other transportation modes — never entirely does.
Transit is a public service provided as an alternate means of transportation and, as are all means of transportation throughout the world, it is supported in part by public funding.
The streetcar system now is 2.7 miles, connecting the core of downtown, the Channel District and historic Ybor City. More than $1 billion in private investment has been made along the streetcar line, and ridership has remained steady despite the economic downturn.
Since its inception, the streetcar system has existed under a tri-party agreement: The city of Tampa provides fiscal oversight; the Tampa Historic Streetcar Board of Directors manages the endowment and provides financial and operational policy direction; and HART operates the system. It has proved to be a workable arrangement.
The current streetcar system is coming up on its 10th anniversary. Despite new and ongoing challenges, it has steadily garnered steadfast support by residents and businesses alike. It has become an iconic symbol of Tampa and a natural piece of the puzzle to lure conventions, corporate meetings and big-ticket entertainment events downtown.
More important, it has served as an urban circulator, taking cars off the street for short trips, which makes a real difference for a community that wishes to be pedestrian friendly. But transit naysayers will continue to question its direct return on investment.
This area is no exception to the economic downturn, and the local bus system and the streetcar system are grappling with service cuts to balance the budgets. HART has been smart to implement incremental adjustments rather than a swift, one-time cut. Liability insurance for a CSX rail crossing is one-fourth of the total streetcar budget, and the board of directors is researching ways to reduce this cost.
Working closely together, the agencies under the tri-party agreement have developed promotions and creative fare structures that have generated more pass sales. Keeping everyone engaged about the accomplishments and challenges of the streetcar system has maintained the spirit of community investment.
Michael English, an architect, serves on the Tampa Historic Streetcar board of directors.