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Tampa would lose millions by halting its money-losing streetcar

TAMPA - More than a decade ago, then-City Councilman Bob Buckhorn cast the lone vote against starting the Tampa streetcar. Buckhorn worried the streetcar lacked a viable business model. He opposed taxing businesses in Ybor City and downtown to pay for the line. The federal money underwriting the project could be better spent elsewhere, he said at the time. "Everything I said bad about it back then came true," said now-Mayor Buckhorn. "The problem is now it's mine to fix." Tampa's streetcar line faces falling property tax revenue, and its $5 million endowment has all been used. The 1998 agreement that created the streetcar line puts the city on the hook should the streetcar's budget come up short, which it routinely does.
However, shutting it down could prove even more costly. Uncle Sam would expect to get back part of the federal government's $55 million investment in the system. "It's running," Buckhorn said of the streetcar. "We've got to find a way to make it successful." The emphasis is on the "we." The streetcar is managed by the nonprofit Tampa Historic Streetcar board and operated by HART. Tampa owns the tracks and stations. The streetcar has consistently operated in the red since it began running again in 2002, covering shortfalls by drawing down the $5 million endowment fund. As it has since it opened, the 2.7-mile streetcar line continues to inspire two very different views of its promise, performance and public image. One view says the streetcar adds character to downtown Tampa, helps in recruiting conferences to the Tampa Convention Center and draws business to nearby merchants. If only the streetcar line were extended to make a complete loop through downtown, supporters argue, it would become a more functional source of transportation, not just a mobile landmark. Critics focus on the streetcar's current annual operating budget of $1.5 million, of which passenger fares are budgeted to provide about 45 percent. That's not enough for the system that carried 358,737 passengers in 2011, critics say. Transit experts note that no transit system in the United States operates without taxpayer support. Most bus systems get 20 to 24 percent of their operating revenue from passenger fares. Fred Jacobsen, an Apollo Beach resident who is skeptical of much local rail planning, labels it "The failed Tampa Choo-Choo." "Streetcars can be a fun, efficient way to move people around if they are well thought-out and if the taxpayers actually get value for their tax dollars," Jacobsen said. He said Tampa streetcar planners asked "Which of these routes do you like best?" not "How much would you be willing to pay in fares and how much would you be willing to subsidize those fares through taxes?" "So let's get serious about the fun inherent in rail and talk about who benefits and who pays," Jacobsen said. "Downtown Tampa could become another Downtown Disney with the right rail system that would pay back the city of Tampa the costs of construction." Vince Pardo, manager of Ybor City Community Redevelopment Area, said the streetcar has been a great economic engine for Ybor City, particularly during special events like Guavaween and the Knight Parade. However, he's concerned about services or hours of operation being scaled back. "You can reduce something back to a level where it becomes ineffective and people stop using it," he said. "With the current hours of streetcar operation, Ybor residents can't use streetcars to go to work. But if service hours were expanded so there was a commuter service in the morning, ridership would increase." Streetcars allow Tampa to "kick butt when we go against Orlando for conventions," as convention attendees can stay in downtown hotels and easily ride to Ybor City for meals or entertainment, said Tom Keating, president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce. Keating said the streetcar should be expanded, not scaled back. "Right now it's a novelty," he said. "It needs to be extended as a downtown circular." City council member Mike Suarez, a HART and streetcar board member, said residential growth in Ybor City and the Channelside area gives the streetcar the customer base it needs to become a viable transit option. "The streetcar can't be looked at by itself," Suarez said. "It has to be looked at as part of a full multimodal transportation system." Tampa's streetcar dates back to the late 1800s, when the forerunner of Tampa Electric Co. took over 21.5 miles of track. The company still lends its name to the modern TECO Line Streetcar System. Ridership peaked in 1926 with more than 20 million passengers and 53 miles of track. A division of General Motors took over transit operations and, as happened in other cities where car companies ran transit systems, Tampa's streetcar gave way to cars after World War II. Streetcars disappeared in Tampa in 1946. In the 1980s local residents began pushing the city to revive the streetcar line. It took 20 more years for a route to reappear. The streetcar is not the only Tampa landmark whose image failed to meet early expectations. The Florida Aquarium encountered years of attendance and financial difficulties after opening in 1995 until it landed a volunteer chief financial officer with private sector expertise who invoked a no-nonsense fiscal approach. With new management and the city getting a better grasp of issues, the aquarium turned things around, after reaching a point similar to what the streetcar faces now. HART chief executive director Philip Hale, the fourth top HART manager to have a hand in streetcar operations, is adamant the streetcar will persevere. "The main reason the streetcar will survive for many years to come is very basic: It has extensive support," Hale said. That support includes the HART board, streetcar board and Buckhorn, and a history of being fairly immune to downturns in the economy, Hale said. It also has the support of businesses along the streetcar route that are taxed to support it. More than $1 billion in business investment has been created along its route since 2005, a city document showed. That's not to say success will be simple. Hale, who came to HART four years ago with extensive bus and rail transit experience in Dallas, said it took him awhile to make sense of the streetcar's operation. He set up a long-term maintenance plan to ensure the streetcars continue to meet government safety guidelines. Although there never has been a plan for financing long-term infrastructure investments, Hale says it's possible to create one before those improvements are needed. "HART can't go it alone," Hale said. "The city can't go it alone. The streetcar board can't go it alone. We need to continue working together and we need the support of the community."

tjackovics@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7817 Reporter Josh Poltilove contributed to this report.

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