Tampa Bay Rays
Bullet train could pad Rays' gate
TAMPA - Of all the reasons for the Tampa Bay Rays' poor attendance - its domed stadium, historically bad teams - perhaps none trumps its distant location. But what if you could jump on a bullet train and arrive within a block or two of a stadium in a half-hour? No traffic. No parking hassle. The same terminal would also be a hub that would draw passengers from several modes of transportation, including proposed light rail systems and bus lines. Conceivably, that could happen, although it would require some huge hypothetical events to take place. Biggest of all, the Rays would have to relocate to downtown Tampa or somewhere nearby, which is a very big "if."For now, there appears to be little political will to use public money to build a new baseball stadium or to kick off a bidding war for the Rays between Tampa and St. Petersburg. Still, it's not lost on the Rays that a bullet train has the potential to lure new fans from Lakeland and even Orlando. Michael Kalt, the Rays development executive in charge of its stadium options, said a location near a 160-mph train could draw fans. The Rays averaged 23,148 fans in 2009, ranking it 23rd out of 30 major league teams in attendance. Kalt said the Rays have no plans to move out of Tropicana Field, and he didn't want to speculate on hypothetical events. "For the time being we are where we are," Kalt said. President Obama visited Tampa on Thursday and announced Florida will receive $1.25 billion to kick-start its high-speed rail effort. The rail line would run down the median of Interstate 4 from Orlando to Tampa, with a stop in Lakeland. The proposed Tampa station near the old Morgan Street Jail would be within walking distance of some of downtown's attractions, including the St. Pete Times Forum, home to the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team. According to projections, a trip from Lakeland to downtown Tampa might take just 19 minutes. Traveling from Orlando International Airport to Tampa would take 55. The Lightning see potential. "We have a concentration of fans (and potential new fans) in the Lakeland and Orlando areas, and giving them an easier, less congested path to our arena will most likely result in more bodies in the building on a regular basis," Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett said. "It's good for the Lightning and it's good for downtown Tampa." Publicly, politicians and civic leaders in Hillsborough County appear uneasy or unwilling to lobby for the Rays to move to Tampa. Still, the idea is in the public domain. A nonpartisan civic group called the ABC Coalition has been meeting for more than a year to determine whether the Rays need a new stadium. The group was created by St. Petersburg's then-Mayor Rick Baker. This week, the ABC Coalition issued its formal verdict: Tropicana Field won't do in the long term, and the community risks losing the team if it can't find better accommodations. What's more, the best potential new locations for a stadium are in the Gateway area of St. Petersburg, Tampa's West Shore area and downtown Tampa. These areas are more central to the Bay area's population base than downtown St. Petersburg, and they generally have better demographics, the coalition found. Craig Sher, a Pinellas County shopping center developer and a member of the ABC Coalition, said the coalition didn't consider a bullet train when discussing potential stadium locations. However, speaking personally rather than for the entire coalition, he said a bullet train station nearby would enhance downtown Tampa's attractiveness. Two Hillsborough County Commissioners, Mark Sharpe and Jim Norman, didn't return calls this week. It's hard to say how many people would travel from Lakeland or Orlando to Tampa by rail to catch a ballgame. According to the Rays' own data, about 4 percent of the people who buy single-game tickets to Rays games come from Polk County and 4 percent come from Orange County. Mark Jackson of Winter Haven said the throng of Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers fans who attend spring training games in Polk County would travel to Rays games more often if a bullet train dropped them off at the stadium's doorstep. "At least to people in Polk County, (the distance) is a barrier to more frequent attendance," said Jackson, who oversees sports marketing for Polk County's economic development agency. "Any kind of transit system like you see in New York is definitely an asset to local economies, as people want to attend major sporting events." For his part, new St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said he'll speak with the Rays if the team wants to talk to the city about its future. Until then, he expects the team to fulfill its contract and play at Tropicana Field through 2027. Eventually, Foster expects there will be a rail line linking Tampa and St. Petersburg, even if it's a slower light-rail line that makes multiple stops along the way. So, people will still be able to hop on a train from Tampa to watch ballgames in downtown St. Petersburg, he said. The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, a transportation agency with representatives from local counties, has proposed a light-rail line linking Tampa, St. Petersburg and other local cities. It's far from coming to fruition and would have to go before voters in a difficult election. Bob Clifford, TBARTA's executive director, said such a train would top out at about 55 mph and have several stops between Tampa and St. Petersburg. "We heard very often, 'Can I get to the airport, can I get to a Rays game, can I get to the Bucs?'" Clifford said Bob.
Reporter Michael Sasso can be reached at (813) 259-7865.