By Santiago Arango
Heritage streetcars are built both to provide transportation services and to preserve the history of rail transit, a history that dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. As of late 2012, seven U.S cities have running heritage streetcars. The Tampa Electric Company (TECO) Line Streetcar System is one example. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) recently committed 1 million dollars to assess the feasibility of expanding and renovating Tampa’s streetcars. Studies indicate that tourists are the TECO’s most frequent riders, but the line hasn’t performed successfully for several years. In order to be profitable, the TECO Line Streetcar System will need to serve more daily commuters, as well as tourists interested in Tampa’s history.
Tampa’s first streetcar lines were built in 1892, and swiftly became an important part of daily transportation. Cigar factories dominated the economy in Tampa in the early 1900s and workers depended on streetcars in order to get to work. Tampa’s streetcars reached their peak of popularity in 1926, serving 26 million passengers that year, but all had ceased operating by 1946. Numerous attempts were made to bring them back into operation, and the streetcars were eventually revived in 2003.
The FDOT study will evaluate “potential ridership, environmental impacts and economic development opportunities as well as refine capital and operational costs”. The study’s results will determine whether providing federal and state funds for the TECO Line Streetcar is a sound investment.
A study conducted by HDR and published by the Hillsborough Regional Area Transit Authority (HART) outlined four possible scenarios for expansion, with estimated costs ranging from 37 million dollars to approximately 60 million dollars. Yet there are concerns about the TECO line’s feasibility in its current state. According to HART’s financial report for 2014, streetcar ridership declined 6.12% from 2013 to 2014. TECO incurred a deficit of $662,000 that same year. Ridership is projected to continue declining in the near future.
Another study by The Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) examined the purpose, function and performance of streetcar transit in five major cities: Little Rock, Memphis, Portland, Seattle, and Tampa. The study identifies tourism as a key factor in the performance of streetcars within its case study of Tampa. Tourism accounted for 57% of the TECO streetcar system’s total ridership. Between 2003 and 2008, TECO’s revenue and ridership increased each year, but have declined since the 2008 recession. MTI concludes their case study of TECO by saying that streetcar performance within Tampa may be too dependent on the tourism industry and should diversify its customer base.
Many analysts believe that taxpayers ought to receive a return on public investments that is greater than 1 (meaning that every tax dollar spent spurs more than a dollar in additional revenue) in order for a project to be justified on cost effectiveness. TECO’s shortcomings warrant concern from Tampa residents and taxpayers. 2014 was a record breaking year for Florida’s tourism industry, but the TECO line still lost ridership and revenues, suggesting it can’t count on future tourism growth to sustain it financially. Changes must be made to the TECO line to make it a profitable enterprise. It must better serve Tampa’s local commuters, as well as tourists, or run the risk of becoming a one dimensional tourist attraction.