Effect of Future Transit and Traffic on Tampa Bay Baseball Attendance

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A few weeks ago, data journalism site FiveThirtyEight.com looked at public transportation use in cities and towns in the US. They ranked all the metropolitan centers with populations over 65,000 and determined which area got the most bang out of public transportation.

With 229.8 trips per capita in 2013, New York City blew away the competition. Also in the top ten were San Francisco-Oakland, Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

Out of 290 areas, Tampa-St. Petersburg ranked 124th with only 12.3 trips per capita in 2013. Of the 21 areas with over 2 million people, Tampa-St. Petersberg ranked 20th, trailing only Detroit.

People often claim traffic and congestion is a major cause in the Rays lack of attendance. They claim the geographic layout of the area and the location of Tropicana Field prevents easy flow from population centers to Rays games.

According to traffic research site TomTom, the Tampa Bay area is the 20th most congested metro area in the United States. TomTom estimates there is a 28 minute delay for every hour traveled during peak driving periods (morning rush, post-work rush).

So what if anything is being done that might reduce congestion and allow a better flow to baseball in the Tampa Bay area?

This November, the Greenlight Pinellas proposal comes to ballot. According to its website, the Greenlight Pinellas proposal is a 10-year program designed to reform and improve public transportation in Pinellas County, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, Clearwater Threshers, and Dunedin Blue Jays.

If approved, Greenlight Pinellas would implement the following:

  • Limited improvements in 2015, to include a trolley service and a regional Saturday service.
  • 2016 would see expanded night and weekend service times, increased bus frequencies, Increase mid-day frequencies for local routes, trolleys, and connector, a new regional express service, circulator service, and seasonal trolley service.
  • From 2018 to 2021, a rapid Bus Service is planned for Pinellas County’s highest volume, most productive corridors: Central Avenue (near Tropicana Field), 49th Street/E. Bay Drive, Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, 4th Street/Ulmerton Road, US 19 (to include near Bright House Field), and Seminole Boulevard.
  • Finally, in 2024, a rail system will be created connecting Downtown St. Petersburg with Downtown Clearwater.

So far, the Greenlight Pinellas proposal has several major endorsements, to include the Tampa Bay Bucs and Tampa Bay Rays. The Tampa Bay Business Journal also cites “a dozen Pinellas municipalities, 10 chambers of commerce in Pinellas and Hillsborough, and the Tampa Downtown Partnership support the proposal“.

Demographically, Pinellas County is home to 929,048 residents. Assuming the Quinnipiac University Florida poll of 50% baseball fans, there are 464,524 baseball fans in Pinellas. According to the New York Times/Facebook poll, 56% of Pinellas County baseball fans are Rays fans. So that’s 260,133 Rays fans in Pinellas County.

I am not completely sold that a few more buses will lead to a drastic change in attendance at Tropicana Field. Attendance may increase slightly as people take buses from work to the ballpark. Maybe the Rays and the city can create a joint ticket incentive that would promote the option until it becomes an engrained behavior.

(Although the Rays would be losing parking revenue, so how much they would discount ticket revenue to promote transportation options would probably depend on how much they calculate attendance and ticket sales would increase.)

Despite targeting the Greenlight Pinellas effort to Rays fans, we are still only talking about 260,133 Rays fans. Or 464,524 baseball fans total. Perhaps the ease of traffic and travel will convince these fans to go more often. Maybe these fans can be convinced to go to One More Game. Maybe better transportation options to Tropicana Field would convince more people to spend their leisure dollars on baseball and become baseball fans.

Of course, the Rays aren’t the only team that might benefit from the proposed mass transit expansion. Bus routes running alongside Bright House Field in Clearwater and in the neighborhood of Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin could affect attendance in those parks.

There is some opposition to the measure. Critics say the tax hike is too high, light rail does not reduce congestion, it will hurt the poor and middle class, and that it threatens small businesses.

What the initiative does not do is create a rail connecting St. Petersburg to Tampa. While the initiative outlines a “proposed” rail line along the Howard Frankland Bridge, an article earlier this year in the Tampa Bay Business Journal claims the bridge won’t be rail ready anytime soon, despite new construction.

In order to include light rail, the bridge would have to be widened; a causeway leading up to it would need to be built; the electrical component and other infrastructure would have to be added.

Or – another structure adjacent to the bridge could be constructed exclusively for the rail line.

The cost for either option: about $1 billion.

The new span, due for completion by 2024, is currently budgeted at $425 million.

Meanwhile, while ideas for progress are being considered north of Tropicana Field, the southern counties of Tampa Bay are preparing for the worst. Earlier this week, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that due to a lack of north-south roads in Sarasota and Manatee County, commuters are using I-75 for local trips. Combined with a growing area population, this increased local use is congesting the interstate and hindering travel.

There is no arguing the Tampa Bay area needs mass transit. I would like to see train, bike lanes, self-driving cars, and hover chair people movers like in Wall-E. But I am not convinced these projects will have a significant effect on baseball attendance.

And besides, if Greenlight Pinellas is greenlighted, by the time it is completed, the Rays might be playing elsewhere in Tampa Bay.

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