Tampa Streetcar: The fare to go nowhere?June 8, 2012 by: Samuel Scheib
The Tampa TECO streetcar is in trouble. A recent story in the Tampa Tribune describes a touristy, toy streetcar in a ridership death spiral. HART, which operates the TECO Trolley, expects ridership to drop by 80,000 passengers for a fiscal 2013 total of just 330,000. If those numbers bear out, that is a 50% drop from 2010. From Ted Jackovics’ story we learn:
Possible reasons ridership is in decline include streetcar fares 75 cents higher than the current bus fare, fewer downtown special events because of the recession and less frequent service necessitated by budget cuts. In addition, the streetcar route between downtown and Ybor City is targeted more to visitors than residents, an issue exacerbated by the lack of connectivity with other downtown transit modes.
That about sums it up. The TECO streetcar was built for tourists, going as it does by Channelside where cruise ships dock, party venue Ybor City, the Tampa Convention Center, and a bunch of hotels. The streetcar was also pointedly not built for bus riders. The end of the streetcar is 7/10s of a mile from the Marion Transit Center, where all the downtown buses go, close enough to be in walking distance but certainly not close enough to be considered part of the same transit system. It was also not built for residents because few live anywhere near the streetcar alignment.
Is the fare the problem? Yes and probably not. Let’s remember that the last unused fixed-guideway system Tampa had, the ill-fated Harbour Island People Mover, was only a quarter to ride, but still too expensive to go nowhere. Even fewer people took that goofy ride. HART chief executive Philip Hale is quoted in the story as saying tourists complain $2.50 is too much to ride, and they are right. In San Francisco, it costs a whopping $6 to board the historic cable car. To say Tampa is not San Francisco is beyond stating the obvious. The cable car is insanely fun; it runs up and down hills which are lined with delicately sculpted Victorian buildings and offers views of the city and bay. It is so crowded with other people having fun they not only letyou hang outside of it, but doing so is often a necessity. And there are people everywhere enjoying this wonderful place.
Let’s compare with the TECO line. Enjoy as it goes by empty fields and concrete lots, under elevated roads, along deserted streets, all in a dedicated right-of-way that could allow for high speed transit service but instead provides visitors a painfully slow tour of vacancy (it goes 8 mph according to the driver I asked). In the video below I counted 10 people outside of cars in the space of 5:45.
Tampa is not a tourism town. Sorry, it isn’t. The city has or had at one time or another pro sports teams and their stadiums, a performing art center, a convention center, a downtown pedestrian mall, a people mover, a hockey arena, an aquarium, an historic night club district, an historic naval vessel, museums, a skyline, and a streetcar, all of which theoretically are supposed to create a thriving metropolis for tourists and citizens alike. The problem is the downtown has few people and no accompanying street life. No one lives there. It is the metropolitan equivalent of the lunch counters that dominate the downtown restaurant scene: active from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm, M-F, excluding holidays.
The build-it-and-they-will-come model works perfectly fine for baseball diamonds built on corn fields, but it is a lousy way to develop transit. The basic rule of thumb for transit projects is very, very simple but is ignored at a city’s peril: put transit where people are, not where one wants them to be.