This much we know. Come Oct. 19 — barring a hurricane hit, a meltdown between the city and HART or the wrath of former Mayor Sandy Freedman — there will be electric streetcars running in Tampa for the first time in more than half a century. Ridership numbers and economic impact remain intriguing unknowns.
Amid all the familiar names, faces and ceremonial fanfare surrounding the debut of the TECO Line Streetcar System will be a certain city planner who will allow himself the briefest sigh of relief. After the respite, WilsonMiller, Inc. senior planner Michael English goes back behind the scenes to continue culling prospects for station ($100,000) and car ($250,000) naming rights and resume ubiquitous trouble-shooting. For more than a decade he’s been a key streetcar player, including efforts to help land an important federal grant and lobby for special assessments on private property in the areas served by the streetcars: downtown, the Channel District and Ybor City.
English, an affable, mass transit true believer, is a seven-time president of the Tampa and Ybor City Railway Society, the organization responsible for promoting the return of streetcars to Tampa. He’s also president of Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc., the nonprofit corporation that will manage the system.
“It was always intended to be a tourist and visitor-driven concept,” states English. “But this is not a toy. It can help accomplish subtle things. Encourage new residential development; help attract more people to downtown. But, then again, it’s not just an economic development tool. It’s effective transportation within the urban center.”
English, known in South Tampa circles as the civic conscience of the venerable Hyde Park Men’s Club, is also an urban anthropologist.
“One of the key principles of cultural anthropology is people’s behavior and how it’s representative of people’s values,” explains English. “I’ve always believed the streetcar can’t fail here. It still rests in the hearts of local people. Always has.”
Pragmatic progress or utopian vision, it’s back on track Oct. 19.