Parking in Tampa Bay is such a ripoff
Hotels, theme parks, concerts, ugh. And $53 to park for Taylor Swift?
Fans tailgate and mingle ahead of a Bucs game against the Dallas Cowboys near Bucs Beach on Jan. 16 in Tampa.
Fans tailgate and mingle ahead of a Bucs game against the Dallas Cowboys near Bucs Beach on Jan. 16 in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published March 24|Updated March 24

Last weekend, my family attended the Innings Festival, a two-day concert held in the lots around Raymond James Stadium. Clean, fun, lively jam. However, I want to have dinner with whoever booked Pitbull and Marcus Mumford on the same bill. So many questions.

Anyway, the point is I almost swallowed my teeth realizing parking was $45 plus tax.

Silly little me had a $20 bill in my wallet like it was 1992 (The Breeders were on the lineup). We asked the beleaguered parking attendants if this was real, and they looked more beleaguered yet.

This exchange reignited a sensation deep in my bones, a fury that would send me down a dark soul odyssey into, yes, paid parking. No, not street meters, or even regular overpriced lots, but rather the venues whose gutless racket leads them to shake down everyone shackled to their cars, because I guess the only other option is to float down via U.S. Army T-11 parachute!!!

So? says James Madison. Don’t park in the lot, adds Thomas Jefferson.

To which I adjust my white wig and humbly ask, sirs, does the existence of a parking fee not imply that there is some other, feeless, option?

At the end of the first night, just for giggles, I checked Uber and Lyft. Maybe on day two, we could park a couple miles away and ride. Surge pricing set this little Tampa jaunt between $40 and $70, and I coughed up ash. I suppose if you plan your journey with a flowchart, prepped with trail mix and water, you could theoretically take a bus. I mapped public transport from my house in Dunedin to the stadium. Projected travel time was three hours and 36 minutes, if I left the next morning at 5:30 a.m.

Day two of the concert dawned, and we weary travelers set off. The same stadium lot was booked for New York Yankees spring training guests, with a parking fee of … $15. Let me be clear: Same. Earth. Patch. Concert attendees were pointed across the street to the Hillsborough Community College lot to once again pay $45 plus tax.

Obviously, this type of creative commerce is what the Founding Fathers dreamed about. Later, I called and emailed the Tampa Sports Authority, the quasi-governmental body that runs the stadium, to understand the price process, but did not get a response. An HCC spokesperson confirmed the authority sets parking prices.

Around Dale Mabry, the next best parking comes from industrious homeowners with posterboards in their driveways. That’s a healthy distance to walk along busy roads in the dark while reeling from Imagine Dragons. And this doesn’t work for people with limited mobility.

So, you know, they’re going to get the fee.

Allow me to drag you into my rabbit warren. At RayJay, Bucs game parking costs $40 to $50. Day-of parking for the upcoming Taylor Swift Eras tour is $53 in the HCC lot; the college splits the earnings with the authority. For comparison, parking for Swift’s tour at the same venue in 2015 cost $25. For her tour in 2018, it was $30.

A general survey: Parking around Amalie Arena can reach $40. Tropicana Field, $15 to $30. Self-parking at Tampa’s Straz Center is typically $20, roughly one double pour of theater wine. The Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg offers a steal at $10. And self-parking at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater is — break for smelling salts — free. Ruth Eckerd Hall, never change.

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For my next slide, paying merely to stay at a hotel is no longer enough. Now you must finance your car’s stay, and the car does not get a fluffy towel. At the Don Cesar, self-parking is $24 a day. At the Vinoy, valet is $39 a day. Tampa’s new Edition: $40.

It’s spring, so let’s hit the theme parks. Disney parking starts at $25 unless you stay at a Disney hotel. Disney made hotel parking free this year as guests were getting Very Online about the bloodletting. Busch Gardens parking is $30, and once again, I ask, where else are you supposed to park if not your ticketed destination? No one is buying a Busch Gardens ticket and going to Hot Bins.

Pete Buttigieg did not answer my calls (OK, I emailed), so I contacted a calm academic to walk me through my spitty rage. Michael Maness is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of South Florida. He is also affiliated with USF’s Center for Urban Transportation Research. He studies behavior.

Michael Maness is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of South Florida. He is also affiliated with USF’s Center for Urban Transportation Research.
Michael Maness is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of South Florida. He is also affiliated with USF’s Center for Urban Transportation Research. [ Courtesy of Michael Maness ]

He pointed out that parking is a more than $8 billion industry in the U.S., down from $10 billion pre-pandemic.

The issue is both complicated and not, born of theories one would learn in an econ seminar. Simply, though, businesses will charge what they can. Parking is essentially storage.

“Should it just be given to you? That’s a philosophical question,” he said. “In America, we said, ‘You want to use my space, I want to charge for it.’”

Now, here’s where he cut me to the core, in the nicest, most research-oriented way possible. I asked Maness if he thought we were heading toward $100 concert parking.

He figured prices would relax as more people hit their limits. However, if I may borrow lyrics from our other professor, Dr. Swift, what if I told you none of it was accidental?

“They’re pretty sophisticated at this stuff,” he said of venues. “For Taylor Swift, they know, I’m expecting this many people to come, this profile of people to come.”

Say, he posited, analytics show that 5% of ticket holders wouldn’t pay $53 for parking. Enough others will spend to make up for it.

“$53 is not a random number,” Maness said.

I said, yes, true. That I was attending the Taylor Swift concert and had already spent (redacted) on a ticket, and by the time I got sucked into the Swiftian wonderland with its T-shirts and friendship bracelets, all fees would feel tantamount to Monopoly money in the magic moment. I am just a data point in sequins enabling economic abuse.

“I don’t think I’m making you feel better,” he said.

OK, but fees would surely drop if more people could, in a sense, hop off the 7 train and walk into a Mets game, right? As we know, Tampa Bay is almost completely car-dependent. Despite small gains in transit, like St. Petersburg’s new SunRunner, we appear wedded to Toyota Camrys and Pedal Pubs for the foreseeable future.

Five years ago, Hillsborough voters overwhelmingly passed a 1% sales tax that would have funded, in part, mass transit projects. That’s until the Florida Supreme Court ruled the tax illegal in 2021, and until Gov. Ron DeSantis said the county should refund the money to whoever wants it back, and that the county can’t use what’s left on public transit. That was cool.

Let’s say that was all a late-night nacho nightmare. Would transit gains help make parking cheaper?

“This actually might be weird,” Maness said. “But it’s possible that if you did increase access to a facility, they could increase parking prices.”

With more people cramming onto, say, the Jeff Vinik Cross-Bay Express Tram (my joke, not his), parking would actually become a real convenience, giving lot owners a chance to charge an all-time high premium.

“Now, I’m not a business owner,” he said. “But I figure even if you try to sell it that way, people will still complain.”

Absolutely, Dr. Maness! However, I like this theory. It creates a scenario where everyone can get a win, which we all know is key to managing up.

So, here is an appeal from just one data point screaming next to a four-door hatchback:

To those who drink secret alcohols with elected officials: Maybe if you push for Tampa Bay to finally get the mass transit this bustling region needs, businesses can “create more economic impact.” They can finally charge three figures for parking, which we know is the dream. They can serve sparkling parking lot wine in, like, Ed Sheeran-themed chalices. They can offer rides to the gate in those custom golf carts that look like Hummers. And the rest of us can save our pennies to buy the limited edition Eras tour cropped pullover sweatshirt priced at …

I don’t want to talk about it.

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