They still have that new car smell. The oak seats are so well-polished, their glare is almost painful. The outside remains free from any hint of graffiti or grime. They bring with them a clanging and clickety-clacking gone from Tampa for half a century.
In October, Tampa started running the first chunk of its streetcar system. The first 2.3 miles of the railway services the Tampa Convention Center, the St. Pete Times Forum, the Florida Aquarium and Centro Ybor.
According to Pam Davis, community liaison for HARTline, the streetcars carry many conventioneers and cruise ship passengers. Ridership increases when conventions are held or when there’s an event at The St. Pete Times Forum.
Right now, the streetcars also carry a lot of curious Florida residents.
“It’s a real interesting mix,” Davis said.
Davis said the streetcars average 1,160 boardings per day.
“We’re very thrilled with these figures,” said Davis, who added the streetcars are “conducive to romance.”
Four cars run on the line at a time. Tampa has a total of eight streetcars. The next portion of the streetcar line will run to Franklin Street, and north to Whiting Street. Design will begin in spring, said Michael English, president of the Tampa and Ybor City Railway Society.
The first few miles of the streetcar system mark the first step in connecting the urban areas of Tampa with transportation other than a taxi, bus or car, English said.
“It’s certainly part of a vision for our future,” he said.
Angel RaÃ±on, 82, remembers a vision of the past.
He rode the original Birney Safety Cars that ran in Tampa until 1946, when they were replaced by buses. He said Tampa was a much smaller town than it is today.
“You went to school. You went downtown. Routine ridership. Nothing special,” RaÃ±on said. “Most of the time, we just walked.”
RaÃ±on moved to Tampa from a small village in Spain when he was 11.
“Public transportation was strictly streetcars,” he said.
RaÃ±on, a retired general contractor, said he remembers riding his bicycle to high school and walking the three blocks to a streetcar stop.
“If you rode a bicycle today, they’d laugh at you,” he said.
The streetcars are built to replicate the original Birney Safety Cars. The original idea for the streetcar system came in 1984 with the inception of the Tampa and Ybor City Street Railway Society, of which RaÃ±on is a member.
The society found one of the original Tampa streetcars that was being used for storage. It had previously been used as an apartment. Since then, RaÃ±on and others have been putting in many volunteer hours restoring them. The restored car will run on special occasions.
Steve McGee, restoration chairman for the society, said the car would be the first fully-operational restored streetcar in Florida.
English also serves as president of Historic Streetcar Inc., an independent company in charge of funding the streetcar. He manages the business plan for the TECO Line Streetcar System. Though he said he’s still working on the funding for the next segment of the streetcar, he said he’s pleased with its success.
“It’s a great first step for rail transit in Tampa,” English said.
Those involved in the project know the TECO Line Streetcar System has more to it than noise and nostalgia.
“Economic development is the main goal of the streetcar system,” Davis said.
English said he thinks the streetcar is a critical element in urban renewal. The St. Pete Times Forum, Marriott Headquarters Hotel, Centro Ybor and Channelside were all built in anticipation of the streetcar system. In the downtown area, several new residential projects have been built or will be built.
“American urban dwellers continually appreciate mass transit and will live near mass transit,” English said.
Tracey and Mike Zirfas live in Ybor City. They run an ice cream shop there and took their first trip on the streetcar last Thursday, riding out to Channelside to have dinner.
“It’s really nice,” Tracey Zirfas said. “It has a lot of charm.”
Sandra Moody, who works for Bay Area Commuter Services, said it was also her first trip on the streetcar.
“I just thought it would be interesting to do something different,” Moody said. “It’s something our commuters can do other than jumping into their cars.”
RaÃ±on laughed when asked where he usually goes on the new streetcars because at present, his choices are limited. But, he also seemed impressed, in a way.
“When I first started, I never knew it would turn into what it is today,” RaÃ±on said. “I think it’ll grow in time.
Contact Kristan Brightat firstname.lastname@example.org