Local and state officials held a ceremonial ribbon cutting Friday to celebrate the TECO Line Streetcar System going fare-free for the next three years.
In addition to dropping the normal $2.50 per ride tickets, the streetcars will now run more frequently and earlier.
Starting at 7 a.m. on weekdays, they will travel the 11-mile stretch of tracks between downtown Tampa and Ybor City every 15 minutes. The expanded service is courtesy of a $2.7 million grant from the Florida Department of Transportation.
At Friday's kickoff event, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Interim CEO Jeffrey Seward said officials will gauge ridership levels to see if there is interest in pushing the streetcars into the Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights neighborhoods.
"With the ability to start commuter service at 7 a.m., we're going to be able to see what the real possibilities are for an expansion of service up to the Heights," Seward said.
So far this year, around 20,000 people per month have traveled on the streetcar. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said expanding the service will not be the end-all solution to Tampa's lack of mass transit options, but it is a part of a larger plan.
“Our downtown has become alive, it’s become vibrant, it’s the place where the best and brightest in America want to be,” he said. “But we’ve got to connect it. In order to do that, we can’t lose sight of what makes Tampa so unique and so special. This streetcar represents our history, our story.”
Buckhorn also used Friday's event to urge Hillsborough County residents to vote 'Yes' on the one-cent sales tax initiative for transportation, saying "Shame on you" to those arguing against it. He was joined in his support for the initiative by former Mayor Dick Greco, who also promoted the half-cent sales tax referendum for schools.
After the ribbon-cutting, local politicians and transit officials hopped on a streetcar for a short ride.
Greco, who led the city in the 1960s, '70s and again in the '90s, said he hopes the service expansion will lead to a renewed popularity of the historic streetcars, and maybe even laying down new tracks.
"In 1926, a million people a year rode this streetcar with the small little city we had, but it went 53 miles," Greco said. "The farther it goes, the better it works for everybody."