You Paid For It: A Tampa streetcar named ‘Heartbroken’

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A 6-month pilot project to see if Tampa’s historic streetcar system could serve as a commuter alternative has flopped.

During the 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. rush hour runs between Ybor City, Channelside and Tampa’s Downtown business district, the system attracted an average of 3 to 6 riders per hour which equated to an average morning ridership of 428 riders a week. A HART press release on the findings starts with the headline “A Streetcar Named Heartbroken!” “HART would tell you when they test a route it takes a year and a half to build ridership,” said Michael English who is chairman of the nonprofit organization that oversees the Streetcar system.

The experiment cost about $150,000 which works out to about $14 per rider over the course of half a year. “Well when you’re trying to establish ridership in transit sometimes you have to do things like that,” English said.

English and other hopeful historic streetcar backers are now promoting a series of community brainstorming sessions–part of a $1.6 million study paid by state and city taxpayers– to figure out how to make the streetcar system a viable transportation option. The trouble is that over the past 15 years, it’s been a big loser for taxpayers. Fares account for about 1/3 of the current operating costs.The point of the study is to figure out how to expand and modernize the streetcar system to make it more than just a tourist attraction. “It’s going to take is more money to operate more hours and to extend the streetcar into the downtown. And possibly do a loop into Tampa Heights where people live and want to use it,” English said.

Our You Paid For it investigation determined that over the years fare box revenues have paid for only 28 to 40 percent of operating costs and that doesn’t include the millions it cost to build the system in the first place. Insurance alone just to cross the CSX line in Ybor city costs $365,000 a year. Streetcar backers insist that’s typical for such a system.

English insists that simply looking at the bottom line gives an unfair picture of the Streetcar system’s true value. “i just don’t think you give it a fair shake,” English said.

The next community brainstorming session on the future of the streetcar system takes place at the Tampa Bay History Center April 4th between 5:30 and 7:30pm.

 

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