Time was when streetcars were synonymous with public transportation in America. For Tampa, which featured Florida’s most extensive system, that era ended in 1946 when buses wheeled in.
Fast-track more than half a century. They’re back. Well, 11 of them: nine modern replicas; one restored (1923) car; and one open-sided “Breezer.”
But they are more than the streetcars named nostalgia, featuring operators in traditional uniforms. Also call them: an economic development tool.
Debuting in October, 2002, Tampa’s 2.3-mile TECO Line Streetcar System daily connects the Tampa Convention Center with Ybor City – via the Channel District, the burgeoning entertainment and residential area. The majority of the 40,000 monthly riders, who pay $2 for a one-way fare and $4 for a one-day pass, are tourists – heading for night life, visiting the Florida Aquarium or leisurely getting the lay of the land.
“The streetcar gives us connectivity from the convention area to the entertainment and historic districts,” says Karen Brand, vice president of communications and public relations for the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Meeting planners love it, and travel writers think it’s a neat story. Makes our convention package very attractive.”
So winsome that the streetcar is already a TBCVB staple when pitching Super Bowls, the GOP national convention and the NCAA basketball tournament.
“This is mass transit designed to serve visitors,” explains Michael English, president of Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc. (THS), the non-profit that manages the system for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HARTline). “It’s also an urban design amenity. As traffic increases in the core, the streetcar system increases in importance.”
Indeed, it’s projected that the 15 residential projects now in various stages of development in the Channel District will bring more than 3,300 units by 2008. Developers and merchants regularly reference the streetcar as a selling point.
“We’re definitely happy with it,” says Irene Pierpont, general manager of Centro Ybor. “We’re the number one (of 11) on-and-off spot for the streetcar.”
Not everyone who arrives in Ybor – or Channelside — is a visitor. For holidays and events such as Guavaween and Gasparilla, the system (with its maximum capacity of 88 per car) is dominated by locals. Moreover, the THS also aggressively promotes group charters for $175 an hour. Customers have ranged from Outback Steakhouse and wedding rehearsal diners to young professionals looking for a DUI-free evening of clubbing.
The streetcars carry CD players and are actually wet-zoned inside to accommodate a BYOB party crowd. The cars act as festive shuttles and return to the main station in Ybor between pick-ups and drop-offs.
“Charters have become increasingly popular,” says THS’s English. “All kinds of parties. But, no, we haven’t put up the red velvet blinds yet.”
Complementing Tampa’s streetcar is the rubber-wheeled In-Town Trolley. One route is a 22-stop loop of downtown and Harbour Island, the other a 35-stop loop from downtown to Hyde Park. Fare is 50 cents.
Its St. Petersburg counterpart is the Downtown Looper, 13 stops including The Pier, BayWalk, museums, the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and the University of South Florida. Fare is 25 cents.