Is A Streetcar Loop In Downtown’s Future?

The most recent Tampa Downtown Partnership breakfast meeting was billed as “A Tale of Two Cities.” As in Portland, Ore., and Tampa. The common denominator: Each has a streetcar system. Both were started in the last few years.

End of comparison.

Portland, which is also heavily invested in light rail that intersects and integrates with the streetcar system, is known in transit circles as progressive. Tampa isn’t.

Portland reduces per-capita vehicle miles traveled; Tampa talks of a beltway. Portland’s developers, property owners and governmental entities get it; Tampa has to defend its downtown interests against the provincially myopic Hillsborough County Commission.

The 4-mile, circulator Portland system, which was designed as a magnet for downtown residents, attracts nearly 60,000 riders a week. The 2.4-mile, Convention Center-to-Ybor City TECO Line Streetcar System, which accommodates mostly visitors, less than 6,000.

And yet.

In the opinion of a streetcar expert from Portland, we may be on the right track if we don’t derail ourselves.

“You’ve already experienced some (synergistic) success with Channelside,” noted Rick Gustafson, executive director of Portland Streetcar Inc. and chief operating officer of the Portland Streetcar. “If you complete your downtown loop, it would be dynamite.

“You have your (Southern Transportation) Plaza, the corridor to Ybor, and then you add attractions, including the Performing Arts Center,” added Gustafson. “And then you connect them.”

He then underscored the context that a streetcar system’s success requires.

“It’s a 90 percent economic development tool and 10 per cent transportation,” noted Gustafson. “You have the same potential here.”

Then he cited a downtown rule of thumb: “Poor transit, no mixed-use; good transit; good mixed-use.” One example: the $2.39 billion in private investments generated by the Portland streetcar.

But, no, the formula doesn’t work well with buses.

“You have to think of your customers,” explained Gustafson. “The (streetcar) ride is superior. Noise is an issue. Do you want a latte or a cup of coffee?”

At present, only 600 residents live downtown. That will soon double. And more than 2,200 residential units are now under construction. Many more are planned. But units are not residents. Amenities – from retail to transit – will become paramount in attracting those who want the downtown experience.

But first things first, although community shakers such as Al Austin and Mayor Pam Iorio are increasingly vocal about the need for regional rail. Now in the planning stage is a .3-mile extension of the streetcar system that would run north on Franklin Street to Whiting Street and the Fort Brooke parking garage. A little closer to the heart of downtown.

This is, indeed, a tale of two cities. And, no, Tampa is no Portland. But, yes, it can certainly avoid the worst of times.

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