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Tampa Tribune  - Streetcars Back On Track

Photo by: JIM REED
People line up to ride the first streetcars to run on Tampa streets since 1946. Rides were free Saturday and will be again today, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Streetcars Back On Track
By KATHY STEELE ksteele@tampatrib.com
Published: Oct 20, 2002

TAMPA - Mary K. Jones boarded the yellow streetcar Saturday after a stroll from the Marriott Waterside Hotel to Ice Palace Drive.

She's the kind of rider the TECO Line Streetcar System wants lots of - tourists. The day before, Jones and a friend, on a visit from West Virginia, found downtown a bit barren of things to do.

``We walked and walked for miles and there was nothing,'' Jones said. ``I just decided to get on it and try it. I don't know anywhere to go, so if I get on the trolley maybe it'll take me somewhere.''

Her destination was Ybor City, where festivities were in full swing Saturday to celebrate the rebirth of Tampa's streetcars. The electric streetcars, which began operating in the late 19th century, shut down in 1946 as buses took over.

On Saturday, six replicas of the old Birney streetcars were switched on, powered by an overhead distribution system. A seventh car was held back as a spare, and an eighth car - a rebuilt 1923-vintage Birney - was on display outside the holding barn at Ybor Station between Sixth and Seventh avenues.

More than 20,000 people were expected to climb on board the cars by the end of the grand-opening weekend. Rides were free Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., and today the free trips begin at 10 a.m. and end at 8 p.m. The ride normally takes about 22 minutes.

``I'm impressed,'' said Jones, as she watched her sleek yellow ride pull into the Morgan Street station.

Behind her, musical group Busch Garden Sheiks serenaded her and about 100 others who had started gathering two hours earlier.

At the other end of the line in Ybor City, more people waited their turn. The line trailed down a city block and curved around the corner near Centennial Park.

Mayor Dick Greco earlier had given the streetcars a quick send-off on their maiden trip from Ybor City to downtown. More than 1,000 people gathered in Centennial Park, including several Tampa mayoral candidates, County Commissioner Jan Platt, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis and HARTline director Sharon Dent.

The lead streetcar in the procession from Ybor to downtown - named Shirley's car - was dedicated by SunTrust Bank in memory of the late community activist Shirley Ryals.

For many, Saturday was the end of a nearly 20-year wait. In 1984, a group dedicated to restoring the streetcars - Tampa & Ybor City Street Railway Society - began lobbying for its dream to become reality.

``It's a blast to see it done,'' said Michael English, president of Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc., the nonprofit group that will operate the streetcar system.

It will bring dramatic changes to Tampa by linking downtown and Ybor, he said. Another 5/8-mile of track eventually will extend to Whiting Street and the core of downtown.

``It's what urban design is about: connectivity,'' English said.

Joseph Tilney took a ride Saturday on Tampa's streetcars. The 68-year-old Dunedin resident drove streetcars in Philadelphia for 16 years.

``It was a beautiful ride,'' Tilney said. Reflecting on his experience, Tilney said HARTline will need to do some fine tuning but that it has laid the foundation for a good system.

``A lot will depend on tourists,'' he said. ``I think they are on the right track.''

For Yetive Olson, 89, streetcars were once something taken for granted.

``It was automatic,'' Olson said. ``We used to go the library. Mother didn't take you in a car. You walked to the streetcar line and caught it.''

She and her husband, Lester, 85, have been streetcar supporters for years.

``It's bound to work,'' said Lester Olson of the $1.25 ride. ``People are ready for the convenience of it.''

Reporter Kathy Steele can be reached at (813) 259-7920.


Link to this story the Tampa Tribune website:  Streetcars Back On Track


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