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How Tampa Tripled Ridership on its Streetcar

2:04 PM PDT on April 8, 2019

Here's a happy transit story: A $2.7-million state grant to Tampa's downtown streetcar has helped triple ridership in about six months time — evidence that free transit works.

The 2.7-mile streetcar, serving downtown and the Ybor City neighborhood, is now attracting about 1,700 riders a day. That's not a huge number, but it's a far cry from when Tampa Bay Times columnist Sue Carlton called the streetcar, "This city's most charming boondoggle driven by what appear to be lonely Maytag repairmen."

The rise in ridership stems directly from two changes: The grant allowed Hillsborough Area Regional Transit to make service free, down from a round-trip cost of $5. And the state money also created better service; trains now arrive every 15 minutes, as opposed to every 20, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

The streetcar also benefits from running on mostly its own right of way — meaning it doesn't have to sit in traffic.

Carlton wrote this week how surprising it was to notice people on the trains, for a change. "People were riding — not weekend tourists, not partiers headed to a night parade, but a scattering of actual, regular, workaday-looking folk getting where they needed to go."

The story is similar in St. Petersburg, where the "Looper" downtown circulator was made free last fall thanks to a $900,000 grant, also from Florida DOT. The grant allowed Looper to improve its service so that trains run every 15 minutes from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weeknights and until midnight on weekends. As a result, ridership is up 68 percent, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

The change is costing the local transit agencies a little bit of revenue, but local officials say it is well worth it. The Tampa Streetcar generated about $526,000 annually. The Looper garnered just $12,500, barely enough to make fare collection with the effort, Eric Carlson, director for St. Petersburg's Downtown partnership told the Times.

The successful grants already have important people wondering whether they may be scalable. In 2018, Hillsborough County residents passed a 1-cent sales tax hike to fund, among other things, a major increase in transit. The projects to be funded will be decided by a citizen commission.

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