City bailout of streetcars not imminent, board says
TAMPA - Transit planners on Wednesday revised the long-term financial outlook for the streetcar system, a move they say should postpone for at least several years any subsidies from the city. Under the new plan, service would be maintained at its current level until 2020, when service reductions or new subsidies might be required. The draft business plan, released Wednesday at a special meeting of the streetcar board, projects a required subsidy of $168,000 beginning in 2020 from "an alternate source." The subsidy would grow every year, reaching slightly more than $1 million by 2033. The new projections differ from an earlier version of the business plan released to the board Aug. 15 that showed a required subsidy of almost $250,000 from the city beginning in 2017, with subsidies reaching $1.5 million by 2033."We now have eight years to look at changing our budget without having to change our service," said David Mechanik, president of the streetcar board. Substituting "alternative source" for the "City of Tampa" appeared to be a matter of semantics rather than identifying new revenue sources, although that is the key goal of the streetcar board. State and federal transportation funding continues to dry up. The city likely is on the hook to repay a $55 million federal investment in the streetcar system if it's shut down. The sharp departure from the business plan presented last month resulted from "financial refinements," Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Chief Financial Officer Jeff Seward said. HART provides administrative support and operates the nonprofit streetcar system. Revisions included adjusted expenses, adjusted special assessment district valuations for property owners who must contribute to streetcar revenue, and expectations the Tampa Port Authority would continue annual contributions of $100,000 through 2033. "Funding from the Tampa Port Authority beyond 2013 is uncertain but very important to the system's operation," the streetcar business plan states. That rationale is based on assumptions the port receives benefits from streetcar service, primarily for cruise visitors and patrons of shops and restaurants on the Channelside District property the port leases. Though the streetcar system is expected to continue to need financial support, the service retrieves considerably more of its operating costs from the fare box than does the HART bus system. Fares pay for 45 percent of the streetcar system's operational expenses, compared with 23 percent for HART buses. Advocates point to the system's role as a drawing card for convention visitors and tourists and prospects of expanding it into a loop to provide transportation for commuters. Streetcar ridership is projected to drop 19.5 percent next year to 330,000 passengers, and operating revenue is heading toward its third consecutive year of decline. But the declines, which officials attribute to service cuts — the result of the overall economic decline and fare increases — are expected to reverse in 2014, with annual gains of 1.5 percent in ridership through 2033, according to the business plan. Streetcar board members also approved a balanced, $1.35 million operating budget for the next fiscal year, a decrease of about $162,000 from this year. Fares would remain the same: $2.50 for a one-way trip. HART plans to test increasing frequency from the current 20 minutes to 15 minutes between streetcars on Fridays and Saturdays.
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