ST. PETERSBURG — Whether the Tampa Bay Rays find a new home in the region could hinge on something that doesn't exist here yet.
Long-delayed efforts to bring passenger rail to the Tampa Bay area have gained steam in recent months, just as the Rays have launched a public campaign to escape Tropicana Field and downtown St. Petersburg.
The two seemingly unrelated issues appear to be on a collision course. How, where and if rail gets built in Tampa Bay could determine whether the Rays stay or go.
"We want to keep the Rays in Pinellas County," said R.B. Johnson, chairman of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. "How does that play into the rail line? The time is not too far off where we'll be talking to the Rays about how a new stadium converges with plans for rail."
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To see how rail can shape the economics and logistics of a game that's played on grass, look northward to Minnesota.
This season, Minneapolis opened the $545 million Target Field, the new ballpark for the Minnesota Twins. About 75 feet from left field — close enough to shag a foul ball — sits a station at the end of two rail lines. In 2014, a third rail line will be added.
In addition to 20 bus routes next to the stadium, the Twins get about 5,500 fans a game who arrive by light rail, said Bob Gibbons, a spokesman for Metro Transit. Another 1,800 fans arrive by commuter train, which runs for 53 of the team's 81 home games.
Over the regular season, that's 540,900 rail-riding fans.
It's a mutually beneficial relationship. "Sporting activities provide us a lot of bonus ridership," Gibbons said.
The Twins, who get 20 percent of their attendance via some form of transit, are thankful, too. The team contributed $5 million to enhance the commuter rail station.
Target Field is just one example of the relationship between sports and transit.
• Pittsburgh is spending $538 million to extend the existing light rail system to PNC Park, where the Pirates play, and Heinz Field, home of the Steelers.
• A $91 million station opened last year in New York that allows suburban fans to ride the Metro-North Railroad directly to the new Yankee stadium.
• San Jose is trying to lure the A's from Oakland by building a stadium on a plot of land that will be served by an array of public transportation, including light rail and a proposed bullet train.
Newer stadiums that incorporate rail access — including ones in Houston, Philadelphia and Phoenix — are throwbacks to the industrial era, when teams played in ballparks surrounded by subways and streetcar systems. Wrigley Field in Chicago is half a block from the "L's" Addison Street platform. Boston's Fenway Park is a four-minute walk from the Green Line's Kenmore Square station.
Yet this bond between rail and baseball, as obvious as it may seem, was broken in the 1960s as sports venues chased suburban flight. Owners planted stadiums so far from city centers that walking to them was unthinkable. Bus service was inconvenient. Rail links were nonexistent. A sea of asphalt parking circled these stadiums, isolating them from adjacent neighborhoods and districts.
It took Baltimore's Camden Yards, which opened in 1992 to rave reviews and a booming box office, to reintroduce major league baseball to the city.
"Ever since, the trend has been to put baseball in the urban cores," said Michael Kalt, the Rays' senior vice president of development and business affairs. "With that comes transit."
Tropicana Field is a monument to the era of sprawl that baseball left behind. It opened two years before Camden Yards in a region with one of the nation's weakest public transit systems.
"It's in the minority of stadiums in that it doesn't have access to public transit," Kalt said. "That's an issue."
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By 2015, a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando is scheduled to open. In November, voters in Hillsborough will vote on a sales tax to finance a light rail system.
With the high-speed rail station in downtown Tampa, the city is a tempting place to put a new stadium. When Rays owner Stuart Sternberg announced last month that his club wouldn't be playing at the Trop by the time its agreement with St. Petersburg expires in 2027, he singled out Tampa and Hillsborough County as places to consider.
However, Hillsborough County and Tampa are still paying the debt on three other sporting venues. Pinellas County has more room to maneuver.
County Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel said she favors using hotel bed tax money to pay for a new stadium once the debt on Tropicana Field is paid off in 2015. Over 30 years, that portion of the tax could raise up to $70 million for stadium construction, a fraction of the total cost.
In 2020, the Penny for Pinellas sales tax that is used for public improvements throughout the county expires. If renewed, some of that tax could be used for "connectivity" to transit or transportation links. While that money couldn't be spent on a stadium, it could pay for infrastructure.
That could be a transit station adjacent to a stadium, said Brian Smith, the executive director of the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees the planning for long-term transportation projects.
Also in the works is a proposed transit surtax that could be on the 2011 ballot. If approved by voters, it could raise enough money for the construction and operation of a rail system. Smith said as much as $4 billion could be raised in 25 years.
Up to a quarter of the money could be dedicated to "related transportation facilities," like parking garages, said St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner.
"This is all a discussion we haven't had because these are questions that are just now coming up," he said.
Meanwhile, Pinellas County officials are studying various routes for a light rail system on their side of Tampa Bay. In the coming months, they'll come up with recommendations on where it should go, and how it should be financed.
Wherever rail might go, Johnson said, a Rays stadium should follow. "You don't want to put your stadium in if it's a mile away from the rail line," Johnson said. "You want to be right there on the line."
Almost every potential stadium site in Pinellas — downtown St. Petersburg, Toytown, Jabil/La Entrada, Carillon — is already proposed as a site for a light rail station. Each site, with or without a stadium, is also planned for large-scale development in the future.
Johnson likes the Gateway area for a stadium and a super light rail station that would connect to Tampa.
"It would make it very convenient for fans to come across the bay and see a Rays game by riding the rail," Johnson said. "If the Rays were talking the Gateway area specifically, that would make it attractive for everyone. It gives an added boost to building a bridge across the bay that can support rail."
Even St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who wants the Rays to stay downtown, says the Gateway area, Carillon especially, would be a good fit for a stadium and rail. "There would be hotels, restaurants, retail," Foster said. "It's a natural. It's an activity center enhanced by rail."
Not everyone agrees.
Ed Turanchik, a former Hillsborough County commissioner who is now a consultant for the high-speed rail line, said Pinellas would be better served by developing the existing CSX line that runs through Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Largo for light rail and worrying about connecting to Tampa later.
A first stop in Carillon, connecting to another job center in West Shore, would be useless, he said, because it's neighborhoods, not offices, that produce riders.
"For light rail to work, you need good daily ridership," Turanchik said. "Except for big huge attractions, sports facilities don't have big daily demand.
"A sports venue can't be the tail that wags this dog."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8037.