Moving into the future

Will Pinellas pave the way for better mass transit in Tampa Bay?

Mindful of how emotions can frequently transcend logic when it comes to voting, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Steinocher went straight for the heart when he addressed a room full of enthusiastic advocates for the Greenlight Pinellas initiative last Friday morning in Clearwater.

“You hear the word ‘care.’ This literally is a vote about caring for our community,” he intoned, asking those in the audience who gathered at the Pinellas Realtor Organization office to look at those people sitting next to them. “We are not alone. And what we need to do is stand strong together.”

Steinocher’s words were a symbolic red flag to a room overflowing with enthusiasm about the most concrete plan ever to improve transportation in Pinellas County. The measure that will go before voters in November calls for a hike in the county’s sales tax from 7 to 8 percent, with the extra funds going toward a 65 percent increase in bus service and a new light-rail system connecting St. Petersburg to Clearwater.

Unlike a similar plan that went down to defeat in Hillsborough County, this plan could be more appealing to homeowners in that it calls for a tax swap. Currently the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) is funded by property taxes. But the ballot measure calls for an end to that source of funding and replacing it with new income derived by increasing the sales tax in the county. That will shift the burden from homeowners to citizens and tourists who shop in Pinellas establishments.

Some critics object to the term “tax swap,” since it’s not revenue neutral. Currently, PSTA takes in $32 million annually to fund its system. Switching over to a sales tax would bring in $130 million to pay for an expanded bus system, and 24 miles of rail from downtown St. Petersburg through the Gateway/Carillon area to downtown Clearwater. “You’re getting an additional 95 million, but you are funding a significantly better bus system,” County Commissioner and PSTA chair Ken Welch said last week.

Initial polls show support for the plan overall, but nobody involved with the effort think it’s going to be an easy haul. While the political and business elite in Pinellas are strongly in support, that’s hardly a harbinger of what the populace thinks, as evidenced by the voters’ rejection of the Hillsborough proposal in 2010.

A poll sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay in December showed 55 percent of Pinellas voters supporting the referendum, 36 percent opposing it and 9 percent unsure. A more recent survey conducted by St. Pete Polls shows that the most fervent opposition is in the northern part of the county, with District 4 voters opposing the measure by a 63-31 percent margin.

Former St. Pete City Councilman and PSTA Chair Jeff Danner says different parts of the plan must be showcased to different parts of the community. “There’s a huge number of people who go from Pasco into Carillon, so having those BRT routes to take a few percentage of those commuters off of McMullen Booth Road and U.S. 19 is important to North County,” he says.

Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel agrees, citing the introduction of trolley service from Safety Harbor to Dunedin as another selling point. Don Ewing of the Council of North County Neighborhoods says his organization has done its own polling and that once people are shown the plan, they’re supportive.

Opponents of Greenlight Pinellas often refer to the David vs. Goliath aspect of this fight, as they expect to be heavily outspent in the eight and a half months before the election. But they do believe that their ace in the hole is a reluctance to raise taxes.

hough the excitement was palpable in Clearwater last week, there was a similar level of intensity last month in Largo, where approximately 120 people gathered at the Abundant Life Ministries on a Tuesday night for the first public gathering of the nascent political action committee No Tax For Tracks. The group’s roots are in the Pinellas Tea Party movement, which made its presence felt at the County Center in Clearwater in recent years for its opposition to a variety of projects, though efforts to get the commission to temporarily remove fluoride from the water supply proved to be the group’s Waterloo.

Providing inspiration that night was Debbie Dooley, the national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots and co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party. Her leadership in helping to thwart a 1-cent sales tax increase for a Georgia transportation effort in 2012 (while being outspent $8 million to $15,000) has became the stuff of Tea Party legend.

“We were laughed at,” she told the audience. “We were basically told, ‘Do you think that you’re going to defeat us?’” she recounted with satisfaction.

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