Two downtown merchants’ dreams of seeing a streetcar carry customers up and down Main Street may be coming true.
Forrest Shaw, owner of Pastry Art, and John Anderson, owner of MoZaic restaurant, began discussing the streetcar initiative this summer. Now, city officials and others are listening.
Shaw and Anderson were part of a contingent who traveled to Tampa Oct. 16 to see how Ybor City’s streetcar was built, how it works, and perhaps most importantly, how it was funded.
“Imagine what this could be like, connecting Sarasota, Bradenton and Venice, without having to get in a car,” said former Mayor Mary Anne Servian, who coordinated the trip. “It gives me goosebumps to think what could happen.”
Servian invited more than a dozen city and county officials, business owners and residents to see Tampa’s system. Attendees included Vice Mayor Kelly Kirschner, County Commissioner Joe Barbetta, County Administrator Jim Ley and Pineapple Square developer John Simon.
The idea is to build a streetcar system with an in-ground track from Payne Park, down Main Street to Marina Jack and the Golden Gate Point area. A second track would stretch between Sarasota’s cultural attractions, running from Van Wezel Performing Arts Center to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
The merchants’ vision is not only to create an alternative transportation source but also to spur economic development along the streetcar line.
Shaw said cities that have installed streetcar lines have seen development sprout as soon as the project is announced.
“Cincinnati expects a 14-to-one return on investment,” said Shaw.
In Ybor City, TECOLine Streetcar System managers said there has been $1.5 billion of investment along the 2.5-mile track, which provides access to some of Tampa’s biggest attractions. Tampa’s streetcar is more “transpor-tainment” than commuter car. About 65% of its riders are tourists, and to feed that population, the TECOLine’s drivers dress in old-time streetcar or train conductor outfits. The streetcars themselves are replicas of those used in Tampa until 1946.
The largest obstacle to creating a streetcar line in Sarasota would be funding. It costs $10 million to $20 million per mile to build a system. Shaw’s proposal calls for about 3 miles of track. Streetcars cost anywhere from $50,000 to more than $4 million, and the operating costs would be high. It will take $2.4 million to operate the TECOLine in 2010.
Federal grants are available, but the Federal Transit Administration requires that a streetcar system have plans to operate for 20 years to receive money.
Tampa has a special streetcar assessment area, in which residents and businesses are taxed 0.3300 mills to help run the system. It sold the naming rights to the energy company TECO for $1 million. It sells the naming rights to its stations for $50,000 per year and ads on the streetcar for up to $20,000 per year. The TECOLine also collects about $600,000 in fares.
Shaw left the tour feeling more optimistic about Sarasota’s chances of securing a streetcar system.
“It far exceeded my expectation,” he said.
Kirschner and Barbetta reported back to their respective boards during a joint city and county meeting Oct. 20.
Both boards suggested their staffs should look into conducting a streetcar feasibility study, which SCAT General Manager Anthony Beckford said may cost between $25,000 and $50,000.
Forrest Shaw and John Anderson have formed a group called the Sarasota Streetcar Initiative to help fuel their efforts to create a downtown-streetcar system. For more information on the initiative, maps of the proposed route and news on other cities’ streetcar systems, visit www.sarasotastreetcar.com.