Tracking Nostalgia And Ridership

Tampa has those eight, yellow, barely broken in retro streetcars. They are reminiscent of a bygone, pre-bus era, one that ended in 1946. By January there should be a ninth ready for delivery.

But as of last week there was another — especially notable — addition to the mini fleet. It is a newly restored 1922 Birney streetcar, the sole survivor from Tampa’s original line. In fact, the 28-footer (which will be used exclusively for special occasions) is the only restored operating streetcar in Florida. Its restored state, featuring oak floors and mahogany seats, was more than a decade in the making and the product of some 10,000 volunteer hours. Its cost — approximately $250,000 — was covered from community donations.

At the Birney 163’s recent dedication, no one seemed more nostalgic than 70-year-old Tampa City Council member, Mary Alvarez. In her childhood, she used to ride the streetcar daily from her West Tampa home to MacFarlane Park Elementary School. Her cousin was a conductor who would let her stand at the wheel. She thought it a privilege, she recalled, to help switch the seats and bring down the line.

“We took it for granted,” she sighs. “Who knew we wouldn’t have them much longer? So I think it’s terrific to have an authentic car returned to use. It’s an important symbol. It helps connect people with the roots of Tampa.”

Not that Alvarez is all about nostalgia. She wants to see the streetcar system carrying more than the 1,200 daily passengers (mostly visitors and tourists) it averaged in its most recent fiscal year. She agrees with tentative plans to expand the line from the Southern Transportation Plaza across from the convention center to the Fort Brooke parking garage via Franklin Street. She’s also pushing for expansion in Ybor, specifically from 20th to 26th street.

“I’d like to see an actual residential component brought in,” stresses Alvarez. “That’s my vision. And wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?”

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