FUTURE OF TAMPA STREETCAR DEBATED AT HARTLINE/STREETCAR MEETING-Andrew Stelzer02/28/06
The THS board, which governs the Tampa Streetcar, and the board of the Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit, or HARTLINE held a joint meeting this morning to discuss financial problems with the streetcar, and possible solutions. The Streetcar has come under intense criticism from County commissioners Rhonda Storms, and Brain Blair, who are concerned that Hillsborough county is helping to financially support a project that provides minimal benefit to the majority of county residents, and the streetcars board has had to dip into an endowment fund to help cover what an 2005 audit found was a loss of $2.1 million dollars. Rich Clarendon, HARTLINE's general manager of administration, said that Ridership has increased 2% each year since the streetcar opened in 2002, but at the current rate, the entire endowment will be gone sometime between 2011 and 2025.
ACT â€œnet withdrawals were always contemplated, we planned to dip into the principal, they amounted to up to 300,000 per year, and so what you se if look at the table. The dollar volume hasnâ€™t become close to what was projected, but it was clear it would shrink.â€?
Clarendon said one of the streetcars largest unexpected expenses is insurance for the spot where the streetcar crosses the CSX railway line. The Tampa port authority has also been contributing 700,000 per year to the streetcar, but its unclear if after 2007, they will continue to do so. Sponsorship opportunities were discussedâ€”6 stations and 4 cars have been named by corporate donors so far, and Clarendon said that there are many more which can be named for 35,000 a peaceâ€”he hopes that will take place between 2009 and 2020. Businesses and non-homesteading homeowners along the routes of the streetcar, in Ybor and channelside also have to pay a special assessment fee, which Clarendon estimates could bring in as much as 1.6 billion dollars. And there are plans for 25 cent fare increases approximately every 3 years, thats above the 2.000 fare which already is in place.
County Commissioner Rhonda Storms, who arrived at the meeting a half an hour late, immediately began discussing how she believes the streetcar serves no benefit to Hillsborough county residents outside the city, and she believes the county, and HARTLINE is taking on an unfair burden by supporting it. But Tampa City council man John Dingfelder disagreed.
ACT-Storms â€œwhile I donâ€™t have objections, the primary purpose is to benefit the city, then it should be the citys responsibility.. DING:_doesnâ€™t anything also benefit the county..they will both prosper. STORMS: we cant afford any fanciful thing, hundreds of millions county funds, we cant afford it, DING: I would differ, county commissioners were on board. County budget has nothing to do with it. You could talk about an elusive distraction, its part of transportation. STORMS: I disagree, there is a cost DING: how much money? DONâ€™T interrupt!..it could have gone to bus lines.â€? STORMS: DING: show me an item STORMS: weve already said that if it goes flat, the city has the obligation. DING: its already part of the contract. LETS ask somebody..â€? OTHER PERSON: As part of part 4 , any shortfall will be made up by the city..â€?
Storms then said that she believes when the streetcar is in financial problems, they will come to HARTLINE and ask for money, to which several people replied thatâ€™s hypothetical. Streetcar board member Jan Smith pointed out that the majority of federal and state money used to fund operation of the streetcar could not be used for buses. Discussion ten ensued about whether the streetcar was indeed economic development or simply a luxury for tourists. Storms argued that channelside would be seeing development whether or not there was a streetcar, and that if it really was an economic development tool, I would belong in east Tampa, or west Tampaâ€”two areas which are ailing financially. Streetcar board member Edward Giunta responded.
ACT-Giunta â€œI donâ€™t know that anybody down in the channel district would have said oh no, its just a nice little amenity..there's no way to use it to go anywhere, best case Ybor, but they cant ride it and get to to work, itâ€™s a shame that people have to drive 6 blocks, when transit cant get them there.â€?
HARTLINE board member Dave Mechanik said there is not a funding emergency, and strategies need to be developed over the next year or 2 to make sure the streetcar is financially viable. The group then turned to a vote taken in January, in which the HARTLINE board voted to seek bids for the job of running the streetcar, as opposed to doing it themselves, when the current contract expires in September. It was pointed out that if a new organization operated the street car, HARTLINE would still have to maintain the street cars, would have to do administrative work and might have staff laid off, but could not apply for any state or federal grants to offset the cost. Mechanik said he was the one who made the motion last month, but after several people pointed out it may not be a good idea, he was willing to change his mind.
ACT-mechanik â€œI was interested in the idea of seeing if a lower price could be achieved..since then ive been to a streetcar meeting and consultant said itâ€™s complicated, im fearing putting THS through that turmoil will compound the problems..â€?
The motion to not ask for bids to operate the street car passed 6 to 1, with Rhonda Storms the one vote in opposition. Storms made her own motion to call on the city of Tampa to begin funding the draining of the streetcars endowment, but no one seconded the motion. Councilman John Dingfelder then suggested several ways to generate more income for the streetcar. Getting assessment fees even from homesteaded properties along the streetcar route, change state law to use tourist development funds, ask the state legislature to change the law so the insurance is less for the place where the streetcar crosses the railway line, or to try and get some of the money from the channelside or Ybor community redevelopment agencies(abbreviated CRA), or the monies from the Tax increment financing districts, abbreviated TIF). The last suggestion was objected to by Commissioner Storms
ACT-Storms â€œwhen the county agreed to TIFs, and the city has a pattern of subverting, to pay for a failed boondoggle, that went belly up..TIF and CRA. That may be a great idea, but may not be financially beneficial to the vast majority of people, the point is to introduce developmentâ€¦. DING: it all depends on how you define. STORMS: id like to finish my thought..civility..it ironic DING; ironic, boondoggle sports complex, ill remind you, when that goes belly up you figure that out..you donâ€™t need to go into a diatribe STORMS: no I operate in a different universe, â€?
The HARTLINE board will begin to look into Dingfelders ideas at their next meeting; where they will also discuss the planned extension of the streetcar another 3rd of a mile down whiting street. That meeting will take place on Monday, March 6th at 8:30 am.