FL: Streetcar Board Could Dissolve

April 19--TAMPA -- Local officials created a three-headed partnership a decade ago to operate Tampa's streetcar, whose start was contentious and whose history has been enveloped in fiscal controversy ever since.

The city of Tampa took ownership of the stations, track and overhead electric power lines. HART provided employees and owns the vehicles. The nonprofit Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc. was created to oversee and manage the system.

On Wednesday, the streetcar board said it might be time to get rid of one of those players -- the board itself.

Philip Hale, chief executive of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, launched the discussion at Wednesday's streetcar board meeting. The idea has been hinted at before but never discussed in a public session.

"Why not dissolve the streetcar board?" Hale said after the agency's lawyers discussed options that might lower a rail-crossing insurance premium that has sucked $4 million from the $5 million streetcar endowment over 10 years.

If either HART or the city of Tampa took over the streetcar, they might be able to secure a far better insurance arrangement than the nonprofit streetcar board, board members said.

They pointed out that the city does not face a major insurance cost for other CSX rail crossings throughout town that buses and motorists use.

Streetcar board members stressed that the idea is in its infancy.

"This is purely preliminary," said Mike Suarez, a Tampa city commissioner and streetcar board member. He said he would ask the city administration to explore whether Tampa could take control of the streetcar without facing additional costs.

The timing is critical. The streetcar bleeds red ink, with fare box revenue projected to cover at best 45 percent of an annual $1.5 million operating budget. Revenue in March, historically the best performing month the past two years, was down 3 percent compared with a year ago to $70,946 while ridership declined 14.6 percent to 39,205.

The original 2.4-mile line was built with $55 million in federal funds and operated with a $5 million local endowment to supplement revenue from passenger fares.

But the streetcar presents opportunities, especially now that private-sector bidders are considering ambitious plans to revitalize the Channel District, with investments spreading throughout the area well beyond the entertainment facilities along the current 2.7 mile downtown-Channelside-Ybor City streetcar route.

"This discussion must be considered in terms of the future of mass transit in downtown Tampa," said streetcar board member Michael English.

Copyright 2012 - Tampa Tribune, Fla.