Like San Francisco’s trollies and Seattle’s monorail, Tampa’s heritage streetcar was built for tourists, not residents.
“It’s the only streetcar in the country that doesn’t operate until noon,” says Kevin Thurman, executive director of local transit advocacy group Connect Tampa Bay. (According to a map on the streetcar’s website, it begins service at 11 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.)
Despite its cheery vintage exterior, Thurman explains that the streetcar is costly to ride, runs infrequently and has a small footprint (about 2.7 miles, from Ybor City to downtown’s Channel District). Although he lives near the line, he rarely uses it.
“I’m about to go to a meeting and I’m probably not going to take it … if I ride my bike, I’ll get there faster,” he says.
But earlier this month, Florida’s Department of Transportation promised $1 million for a feasibility study, meaning that Tampa officials may soon have a unique opportunity: turning a heritage line — which a Tampa Bay Times editorial recently called “more novelty than useful transportation” — into a viable means of getting around.
“I think that when all’s said and done, it will prove to be an asset to our urban environment,” says Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, listing several must-fixes: It needs to cost less, run more often and get going earlier in the day. The rest is still pretty much TBD; according to an April 22nd release, the study will explore route expansion and system modernization, addressing “potential ridership data, environmental impacts and economic development opportunities.” FDOT’s funding will become available in July (the start of FY 2016), and Tampa plans to chip in $250,000 in matching funds.
According to Buckhorn, the next year will serve as a research period that should have come much earlier, before the line was built. When the heritage proposal first came before city council in the mid-1990s, he says he was the only member to vote it down.
“It was driven by the trolley hobbyists,” he recalls, adding that he believed fares, location and maintenance weren’t adequately addressed in the initial plan. “We had the trolley caps running a transportation network.”
“In spite of voting against it, I’m now the mayor that has to fix it,” he says.
Back then, Tampa’s heritage lovers weren’t alone. While players in today’s modern streetcar boom tend to lay infrastructure according to current transportation or (perhaps more commonly) redevelopment needs, lines like Tampa’s, completed in 2002, followed a different trend: revamping or replicating yesteryear’s trollies and sending them along historic routes. Memphis, Tennessee, opened one in 1993 Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2000; Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2004.
Several of the earliest heritage lines were eventually deemed useless and scrapped. But Tampa’s began running on the tail end of the trend, after Portland opened the modern line that would begin the latest era of a streetcar love affair (and its inevitable backlash). Its timing was fortunate, because trolley enthusiasts and city planners were starting to think about location and redevelopment (not just train whistles and overalls).
“It was one of the last heritages to be built, but one of the first streetcars to go in an area that needed to be redeveloped,” Thurman says.
And he believes that the line has helped trigger new development in parts of downtown, which has brought more urban-dwellers to the city’s core.
“Look at the population density from 2000 to 2010 within the census tracts around the streetcar,” he says, calling the shift an example of “If you build it they may not ride it, but the developers will still build.”
Buckhorn is skeptical of that connection.
“I think it’s a stretch to say that the trolley triggered development,” he says.
But regardless of whether the heritage line spurred the changes Thurman describes, Buckhorn agrees that they’re happening. When trolley advocates made their first proposals roughly 20 years ago, he recalls thinking the line went “from no place to nowhere.”
“Now we’re in the midst of a huge explosion in the urban core,” he says. “So the current streetcar configuration makes sense.”
Whether that’s a happy accident or intentional planning is apparently up for debate. But Buckhorn says that even if the city decides to modernize the streetcar based on upcoming research, and even if it decides to expand the route, it will keep the heritage spine.
Still, for today’s city officials enamored with modern streetcars, he offers a few words of advice.
“Proceed with caution, build a business plan that is realistic — based on real numbers and not wishful thinking — and make sure that the route is appropriate,” he says. “If you do that, a streetcar, modern or otherwise, can be successful.”
In other words: Keep that trolley cap off.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian