It’s got to be the bleakest moment in the day of a Pinellas County commuter: getting stuck at a red light on a 10-lane wide stretch of US 19, surrounded by strip malls, tacky billboards and cement. The only thing worse: waiting 30 minutes on this godforsaken road in a bus shelter in the middle of August. Certainly one of the lower circles of hell.
Fortunately, Pinellas citizens have the power to change this scenario. On the November 4 ballot, they can vote Yes on Greenlight Pinellas, a referendum on a 1 percent sales tax increase that would pay for county-wide transportation improvements.
You’ve probably read a number of articles describing the specifics of the plan: a 65 percent increase in bus service, including later hours, increased frequency and more weekend service; sidewalk improvements; protected bike lanes; and a light-rail line running north to south.
Also, the plan will cut homeowners' property taxes considerably.
But let’s explore how this vote will make life look and feel. Joni Mitchell’s anthem of suburban despair — “We paved paradise and put up a parking lot” — could have been penned for US 19. We can’t turn back the clock on a development pattern that was fashioned by 20th-century car culture. What we can do is shape a different future. According to Michael English, the urban planner who led the team charged with projecting improvements in transportation routes and the surrounding landscape, “this project would be a sea change in urban design for Pinellas.”
News flash: Transportation changes everything. A trip to Orlando demonstrates how money for buses and rail translates into shiny new condos and apartments adjacent to the stops. Then the commercial services, from dry cleaners and coffee shops to gyms and hair salons, move in. The chicken-egg conversation about density and transportation ends, and everyone just gets busy building.
Since transportation hubs generate a critical mass of people, the calculus of both public and private investment makes sense. We can clump together food and entertainment, social activites and services. The parking lots can be more efficient and the landscaping more profuse.
St. Pete’s success stories, the animation of Beach Drive and the vitality of Central Avenue, are directly linked to the pedestrian and bike-friendliness of those streets. The public dollars spent on those improvements have been repaid by the property and sales taxes generated by local businesses. And when you walk, ride or take the bus (or train), you’re engaging with the community rather than hurtling through it at 60 mph with windows rolled up. By broadening transportation choices, we deepen our whole experience of being here… our senses touch the neighborhoods.
The before-and-after drawings on the Greenlight Pinellas website of a dozen light-rail centers tell the story: The existing intersections are dreary and hostile to people, while the proposals are full of bustling people, denser buildings and landscaping. You want to be there.
The president of the American Institute of Architects’ Tampa Bay chapter, David Hugglestone, sums up: “Approval of Greenlight Pinellas would give greater opportunities for the quality and level of local design because of the denser development. It will up the ante.”
Our choice is clear: Renewed urbanity — investment, liveliness and movement — versus sprawling stasis. Please pick the positive.