Tampa to get money to study feasibility of proper rail

Since its 2002 inception, Tampa's streetcar has largely been targeted toward tourists as a way to get from the cruise ship terminal at Channelside to downtown or Ybor City.

At the moment, the system, dubbed the TECO line, spans 2.7 miles and 11 stops and doesn't start running until 11 a.m. on weekends and noon on weekdays.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has been saying he wants to change that for a while; to turn it into a viable transit option by expanding its run time as well as the rail line itself so people who live and work here have an efficient way to get around.

Now it looks like there's going to be a tangible step in that direction.

The Florida Department of Transportation has announced it will give the city $1 million to study how to modernize the system and "extend the route, through downtown and potentially to historic Tampa Heights," according to a media release from the mayor's office.

Buckhorn has also said he'd like to see the line extended to the West Shore area.

The study will look at "potential ridership data, environmental impacts, and economic development opportunities" along the route, which already passes through areas slated for major redevelopment, like Channelside.

The city will pony up $250,000 in matching funds.

"I believe that the streetcar can become a meaningful transit option within our urban core. This planning funding will allow us to explore how best to achieve that and help us determine what our next steps are," said Buckhorn in a written statement.

A timeline has yet to be laid out for the study, but FDOT does plan to facilitate talks between the city and CSX in regard to railroad crossings and has said it will help Tampa get grant money for carrying out the expansion.

"I share the belief that a strategic extension of the streetcar would support the continued growth and redevelopment within Tampa's urban core. We are hopeful about the potential and feasibility for the project, and we look forward to continuing the strong partnerships we have with the City and County," said Florida Department of Transportation District Secretary Paul Steinman in a statement.

In December, a Hillsborough Regional Area Transit Authority study showed it would cost up to $60 million to upgrade and extend the streetcar line, reports The Tampa Tribune.

Regardless, area transit advocates, needless to say, are stoked at the thought of a modernized rail line everyone can use.

“We think it's phenomenal,” said Kevin Thurman, executive director of Connect Tampa Bay. “It's the first honest-to-God movement toward making the system work better.”

Connect Tampa Bay is advocating for once again putting a countywide transit initiative on the ballot like the ones that voters rejected in 2010 in Hillsborough and in 2014 in Pinellas.

Thurman said the potential streetcar expansion and modernization isn't being in done in lieu of the failed 2010 referendum, but instead could complement a broader future transit overhaul.

“I don't see the two things as related,” Thurman said. “We don't need to depend on one referendum or one source of money to do anything.”

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