Published April, 22, 2015
The Florida Department of Transportation has committed $1 million to help City Hall figure out how to expand Tampa’s underused and underfunded downtown streetcar. “We’ve got to fix the streetcar,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn said in a recent interview. “We can maintain the status quo for a while. The larger issue is, what do we do with it? What are the future expansion plans? What’s the route? How do you pay for it?”
Those questions have gained urgency because of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s $1 billion planned redevelopment around Amalie Arena. Vinik’s development team has been working with the city on potential changes to the streetcar in the hope of seeing an expanded trolley line move workers, sports fans and residents around downtown. Vinik’s plans elevate the streetcar’s potential and create what Buckhorn calls “a rare economic opportunity.”
The FDOT agrees. “We share your viewpoint that a strategic streetcar extension has the potential of being a viable transportation option to support the continuing growth within Tampa’s urban core,” FDOT District 7 Secretary Paul Steinman said in a letter delivered last week.
Buckhorn said the city will put in $250,000 for a jointly funded feasibility study. The study will consider extending the streetcar’s route north to Tampa Heights. The city and state have to focus the study’s goals and agree on its schedule, but officials expect it to address construction and operating costs, ridership projections, environmental impacts and the streetcar’s potential to stimulate development along the route. “The route is critical,” Buckhorn said. “The route will dictate what the cost is.”
The engineering firm HDR has estimated the costs of expanding the streetcar at $30 million to $60 million. That does not include $2.5 million for needed capital maintenance or another $60 million that would be needed to modernize the streetcar.
Buckhorn told Steinman that the city is working to refine the costs and identify both benefits and challenges that go with various alternatives for expansion. That will include pursuing federal funds to aid in construction, city officials said. In the future, Buckhorn anticipates that the city could request state funds to help with the project’s capital and operating costs.
“I will try and spread the love,” he said. “We can’t be asked to bear this entire burden.” The city also expects to ask for the FDOT’s help working with CSX railroad on two key issues. One, the city wants to negotiate for a streetcar crossing at Polk Street. Also, the city hopes to end a $400,000 insurance premium the streetcar line must pay every year to maintain a $100 million liability policy required by CSX because the trolley crosses its tracks in Ybor City.
“It’s great to hear that they’re going to partner with the city on this,” said mass transit advocate and Hillsborough County Commission candidate Brian Willis, who has criticized the FDOT for pursuing a multibillion plan to add tolled express lanes to the area’s interstates instead of focusing on improved bus and other transit options or projects to make roads safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.
More information about the TECO Historic Streetcar.