Whatever their opinions about streetcar, Hale and Buckhorn agree the funding problem isn't going away. Soon, Buckhorn said, the city probably will have to subsidize more of the operating costs.
"We can't tear it up and give it back," Buckhorn said. "If we were to stop using it, we'd have to reimburse the federal government tens of millions of dollars. So now my obligation is to try to find a way to make it work."
There's some discussion that the Tampa line could be more successful if it made a full loop and traveled farther into downtown, where there are more jobs and more residences. The area metropolitan planning organization is planning to launch a streetcar study to determine whether the line should be extended and where.
English believes Tampa residents now understand the dire funding situation the streetcar system faces.
"A lot of people in the community are beginning to question why we're starving the only rail system in the Tampa Bay area," he said.
People need to realize that no transit system -- regardless of its ridership -- pays for itself, said Bob McDonaugh, Tampa's administrator of economic opportunity. As it is, the streetcar has a 31 percent farebox recovery rate, which is considered good in the transit world.
It could work
Buckhorn isn't against rail as a transit mode, and he supports light rail. He even thinks streetcars can work if done the right way -- in a highly populated area with a lot of pedestrians. But, he said, cities should recognize the streetcar is an amenity, not a transportation mode.
He also cautioned that building a streetcar doesn't necessarily increase the likelihood more rail will follow. Voters in Hillsborough County -- which encompasses Tampa -- struck down an initiative that would have funded a light rail line three years ago.
"If San Antonio does it correctly and there really is a nexus between a light-rail system and a hub where everything ends for both light rail, bus and trolley, then maybe you can make that argument," Buckhorn said, "but that hasn't been our experience here."
It's unclear if all of those elements will come together in San Antonio, where voters defeated a 2000 initiative to raise the sales tax for a light-rail system.
As part of its short-range capital plan, VIA is redeveloping two transit centers on the east and west sides of downtown. The West Side Multimodal Center will be a hub for the streetcar and VIA's bus rapid transit service, called VIA Primo, already in operation. There's also talk that one day, a commuter rail line between Austin and San Antonio will stop there, though funding for the project remains elusive.
VIA officials have expressed hope they can leverage the local investment in a streetcar to draw down federal funding to expand it.
Voters in Pinellas County, separated from Tampa by Tampa Bay, will consider a light rail proposition next year. If that passes, English believes Hillsborough County and Tampa voters will want to revive the same issue.
Franco, with the Tampa Bay Partnership, said more people need to realize that even if the streetcar doesn't serve them directly, it can help the surrounding area. She also believes that Tampa's growing workforce wants the kind of quality of life that better public transit brings -- an argument regularly espoused by those in San Antonio who support the city's streetcar and more downtown development.
The rest of the region has to adopt that mentality, Franco said, but that can take a very long time.
"I don't use the streetcar," Franco said, "but I know we need it."