- Kevin Tighe
- PSTA Executive Director Brad Miller unveils the beginning of the Yes for Greenlight campaign
It's been nearly a year since officials of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) hired Tampa PR film Tucker/Hall to build awareness about a transit tax referendum in 2014. That's turned into a branding campaign now known simply as Greenlight Pinellas.
Now, with the measure officially on the ballot in just nine months, a new group is coming to the fore to sell the plan to the public. It's called Yes for Greenlight, and it was unveiled today in Clearwater for local lawmakers, community members and transit advocates.
"This literally is a vote about caring for our community," said Chris Steinocher, president & CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and one of the leaders of the new organization. Eschewing financial analysis or other details of the ambitious plan, Steinocher opted to go with a more emotional pitch, saying transit improvements would represent a quantum leap in the quality of life for Pinellas residence.
"Are we putting rocks in the backpacks of our kids, or are we putting wings on their backs?" he asked. "What are we doing for our community going forward? And so that's what our vote is all about."
Steinocher was preceded at the dais by Ronnie Duncan, the head of TBARTA and a member of the Steering Committee for Yes for Greenlight. He talked in similarly heightened tones, invoking the visionary "forefathers" who led the way in separating Pinellas from Hillsborough County a century ago. He also mentioned that local residents have opted for decades to fund the Penny for Pinellas tax that has helped fund infrastructure projects.
The implication of that last reference couldn't be more clear — that voting to raise taxes is a courageous act that will benefit the community for decades to come. The proposed measure calls for raising the sales tax in Pinellas by a penny — from 7 cents to 8 per dollar. But the referendum also calls for a new way to fund PSTA. Currently that's done by property taxes. The new measure would end that method and substitute the increase in the sales tax.
That's obviously the toughest sell for Greenlight advocates. The tax will add nearly $100 million more to PSTA's annual coffer, financing the planned 65 percent increase in bus services and construction for a 24-mile light-rail system between St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
Several Pinellas County Commissioners and St. Petersburg City Council members were in the audience for Friday's launch, which took place at the Pinellas County Realtors Association offices off of Ulmerton Road, as well as residents from some of the county's 24 municipalities.
PSTA head Brad Miller emphasized that there is already buy-in from "hundreds of government leaders," which he added was "a little bit different than in Hillsborough County." That of course was a reference to a similar effort that went down badly at the polls in Hillsborough in 2010. Greenlight Pinellas has learned from that measure's downfall, determined not to see the same thing happen in 2014.
Not that long ago Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel expressed concerns that going to the ballot to ask for a tax increase in 2014 might be too soon. But now she says she's convinced that this is the right time. "We've invested a tremendous amount of time and a lot of hard questions into making sure we have an extremely detailed plan that is finally sound," she says.
There is opposition to the plan, led by the group No Tax for Tracks, which recently had over 120 people gather during a weeknight in Largo to kickoff their efforts to stop the measure.
"I just hope that people will pay attention that Greenlight Pinellas is just an attempt to put a happy face on a huge tax increase," organizer Barbara Haselden says. She believes that Pinellas County doesn't have a real transportation problem now. "But if this passes, we will."
But organizers feel that Pinellas has a serious problem with transportation that will only get worse without new funding. And so the campaign for and against this measure has now officially begun.
For more information, you can go to the Yes for Greenlight campaign website. We'll have more on this story in next week's edition of CL.